Ethics scandal places Palestinian refugee agency at risk of closure

Analysis: Unwra provides essential aid and services for more than five million refugees

Palestinian men pile bags of flour outside an aid distribution centre run by Unrwa in the central Gaza Strip refugee camp of Bureij, on Wednesday. Photograph: Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images

Palestinian men pile bags of flour outside an aid distribution centre run by Unrwa in the central Gaza Strip refugee camp of Bureij, on Wednesday. Photograph: Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images

 

Unrwa’s very existence is challenged by scandal at the top as the agency scrambles for international funding to distribute emergency cash and food baskets and maintain health, educational, and welfare services for 5.4 million Palestinian refugees.

Unrwa was established by the UN to help Palestinian refugees in the aftermath of the 1948 war surrounding the creation of Israel.

Without the agency, refugees in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza and host countries Lebanon, Syria and Jordan would be thrust into abject poverty and become intolerable burdens on countries where they dwell. Its demise would inevitably lead to unrest in an already conflicted region.

For decades Israel has accused Unrwa of perpetuating the Palestinian- Israeli dispute by granting refugee status to descendants of the 750,000 Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes during Israel’s 1948 war of establishment.

The Trump administration in the US has bought into this claim and last year paid only $65 million (€58 million) of the US annual contribution $364 million to Unrwa. The US had for decades provided one-third of Unrwa’s annual budget of $1.2 billion.

Responding to leaked reports on Unrwa ethics breaches, Israel’s UN ambassador Danny Danon accused the agency of corruption by using donor funds to propagate “false information about [the Palestinian] refugee population” and urged donors to defund Unrwa.

US special envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt tweeted that the agency’s model was broken and unsustainable and “based on an endless expanding ... of beneficiaries”.

Danon and Greenblatt were responding to a report that senior figures at the agency have been accused of serious ethical abuses, including nepotism, according to an internal review.

The White House has called for assistance to be cut to all but survivors among the original 750,000 Palestinian refugees and for the agency to be disbanded. Switzerland and the Netherlands have suspended contributions until investigations are complete.

To compensate for the loss of US funding, Unrwa chief Pierre Krahenbuhl launched an emergency campaign for 2018. He appealed to traditional donors, including Ireland, to increase contributions and secured new donors. He raised the whole sum but, due to the new scandal, may not be able to repeat the feat this year.

By mid-June, Unrwa’s spending had exceeded the $350 million donated for the first half of the year but it continued to provide full services for refugees. Krahenbuhl predicted the deficit for this year would be $211 million.

Due to the shortfall, Unrwa has already reduced occasional cash grants to 400,000 Palestinian refugees struggling to survive in war-torn Syria, but it continues educational and psychological support for students suffering from traumatic stress.

Unrwa simply cannot reduce assistance to Gaza where 80 per cent of the strip’s two million inhabitants survive on international assistance. If funds are not forthcoming, Palestinian students in Unrwa’s 700 schools will face cuts, and medical clinics serving 8.5 million Palestinians annually could be next.

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