In the West Bank, American funding cuts run deep
In Balata, 30,000 people live in an area only twice the size of Temple Bar
Balata is by far the most densely populated among the 19 West Bank camps
Life in Balata is a disaster, says Sadya Khateeb. Balata – a refugee camp in the West Bank – was set up after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It was to be a transient home for 5,000 Palestinians exiled from the coastal village of Jaffa near Tel Aviv.
Born and raised in the urban camp, 43-year-old Khateeb sees the camp on the edge of Nablus as nothing more than a temporary resting place. She is waiting to take her seven children “home” to the Mediterranean Sea, a sight most residents of Balata have never seen. The teacher, however, sees little prospect of a political solution that would allow her to return.
Balata sits at the edge of the city of Nablus in the West Bank, the land-locked area bordered by Israel and Jordan. The Israeli-occupied West Bank is Palestinian land which is largely under Israeli military control. Under the occupation, Palestinians’ freedom of movement is restricted through a system of checkpoints and roadblocks. While Palestinians have a degree of autonomy in parts of the West Bank, 60 per cent of the land is under complete Israeli civil and security control.
As Balata creeps toward its 70th birthday, its population has ballooned to encompass three generations of refugee families. Yet its physical boundaries cannot expand beyond the land allotted to it 69 years ago, leaving it as by far the most densely populated among the 19 West Bank camps. Its near 30,000 inhabitants are confined to an area barely twice the size of Temple Bar.
Tightly squeezed apartment blocks stand shoulder to shoulder in the cramped confines, separated by narrow streets that are measured in inches rather than feet.
Overcrowding, however, is the least of the residents’ worries, says Khateeb. High unemployment rates, low incomes, poor infrastructure, and overburdened health clinics top the long list of problems camp dwellers face. These chronic problems were intensified by a decision made half way across the globe last year that sent shockwaves through refugee camps across the Middle East.
The decision by US president Donald Trump to withhold $300 million of $360 million in funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) last year threatened the agency’s ability to deliver its core mandate to support Palestine refugees.
The so-called “Trump cuts” (the US had been the agency’s largest donor) were “completely unprecedented”, according to Gwyn Lewis, UNRWA’s director of operations in the West Bank. They left the agency with a $446 million hole to fill last year. The US cut all contributions in 2019.
The agency plays a crucial role in daily refugee life. The Palestinian Authority does not consider itself a first provider, leaving UNRWA with a quasi-governmental role. The agency today finds itself a different entity from the one it was set up to be, as its capacity is outpaced by the growth in refugee population – which has risen from 750,000 in the late 1940s to almost 5.5 million Palestinians in 2014.
It is expected to provide employment to refugees as well as services such as health, education and waste collection across 58 camps in the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and blockaded Gaza, where one million people depend on the agency for their basic food needs.
If UNRWA were to shut overnight, Lewis says 94 schools would close in the West Bank alone. Some 830,000 people would lose primary healthcare, and garbage would pile up in the streets, quickly followed by “protests and civil unrest”.
While Lewis, a Dublin-native, has constantly battled funding shortages in her time with the agency both in the West Bank and Lebanon, she says that the US cuts were a “different level of financial challenge and crisis”.
For example, the agency’s cash for work programme, which offers vital short-term employment for unemployed refugees, virtually stopped overnight as it was wholly dependent on US funding, leaving thousands of households without an important source of income.
The cuts to the jobs programme affected up to 500 families in Balata, says Ibraheem Khaleel Saqer, a senior member of the Popular Service Committee of Balata camp. “Those who worked for UNRWA used to spend their money on their families; now they have no money but they still have a family,” says Saqer.
One such example, Khateeb says, is her aunt, a teacher who lost her position in a UNRWA school due to the cutbacks. With two daughters in university, the change “was very big for them”. Khateeb, herself employed in a public school close to Nablus, says the situation is just as hard for those outside the UNRWA system. While the level of education among Palestinians is quite high, job opportunities and wages are low, she says.
The past year was a particularly 'traumatic time and a very uncertain time for refugees'
Khateeb supplements her teaching role and her husband’s work with an NGO in the camp by working extra hours sewing at night, “not to make a good life but only to cover ourselves”, so that their children might get a university education. “I want my children to study in private school but I can’t because of the financial situation. I hope in the future their children can live in a better way.”
Mother of five Samir Amireh says the cuts are putting extra pressure on those in the camp, including herself as she struggles to earn enough to put her eldest daughter through university. “As a mother, I am feeling very sad and disappointed and I don’t feel that something will change for the best,” she says. “Unfortunately our lives are getting worse. There is nothing positive we think will happen… I don’t see a future, there is no future.”
Saqer fears that before too long the situation and the stress put on Khateeb, Amireh and other residents “will come to an explosion”. The camp was a centre of resistance during both Intifadas, prolonged Palestinian uprisings in the late 1980s and early 2000s, evident in its bullet-scarred walls and faded posters of the dead.
The past year was a particularly “traumatic time and a very uncertain time for refugees”, according to Jonathan Conlon, Irish representative to the Palestinian Authority, speaking from his office in Ramallah.
Sitting on both the UNRWA’s advisory commission and its operational subcommittee when the US pulled funding last year, Conlon says his team saw up close the impact on services. “There were cuts to cash for work programmes, cuts to psychosocial supports, cuts to mobile health clinics, and staff were laid off in a number of fields,” he says.
“When you have this level of uncertainty about income, about provision of essential services like health and education, there was a real risk of destabilisation,” Conlon says.
Conlon says that there is recognition within UNRWA that, like any organisation, it “needs to continuously examine how it manages its operations” but he is satisfied it has a strong reform strategy.
However, reform has been slowed by the funding crisis, he says. A recent study carried out by the Multilateral Organisation Performance Assessment Network – set up by 18 countries including Ireland to gauge the effectiveness of large multilateral organisations that they fund – backs this up, finding that the “challenging and resource-constrained environment” has limited UNRWA’s ability to implement reforms.
That report, released in June, drew a picture of a “competent, resilient and resolute” agency in 2017 and 2018. Just one one month later, however, an internal document from late 2018 was leaked, outlining accusations of serious ethical abuses among senior figures close to the agency’s Swiss chief Pierre Krähenbühl, himself accused of appointing a woman with whom he was romantically involved as a close adviser.
Krähenbühl was placed on administrative leave and subsequently resigned in November after initial findings of a UN investigation found “managerial issues” but ruled out fraud or misappropriation of funds.
This unfortunate affair bleeds into the somewhat tense relationship between camp committees and the agency that can be marred by mistrust.
For example, while accepting that the Trump cuts badly curtailed the agency’s work, Saqer questions the continued focus on hiring western staff with elevated salaries, far in excess of what an average Palestinian earns.
According to Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, a professor in refugee studies at University College London who has conducted more than a decade of research with camp residents in Lebanon, there is also concern among refugees that their own voice is absent amid the funding crisis.
Criticism of UNRWA’s operational choices did not fall from the sky in 2018 with Trump’s decision to cut ties, Fiddian-Qasmiyeh says. It is rooted in structural issues dating back to the agency’s limited legal mandate to serve as a short-term solution to the refugee crisis.
One of the main criticisms, she says, is that Palestinian employees are essentially “rendered invisible” in the agency’s drive to raise funds.“Throughout the course of my research it’s become apparent that there are certain people employed by UNRWA who feel an acute sense of insecurity and precariousness in spite of being on permanent contracts.”
This is a “very significant concern”, especially where the person is the sole or main breadwinner for both their nuclear and extended family, she says. Another group under particular stress, she says, are those on daily contracts, many of which have “been renewed for years and even decades”.
These precariously employed “dailies”, who, she says, never really have any “sense of security to begin with”, are called upon on an ad hoc basis to fill short-term gaps, including as substitute teachers and doctors to cover sick leave.
“Now what has happened since the Trump cuts is that people who had been on these daily contacts have either been removed from the list . . . or haven’t had their contracts renewed in the way that was happening in the past few years,” she said.
The agency openly acknowledges that it faces chronic challenges to deliver core essential services, and Lewis is well aware that many refugees have become “incredibly frustrated with UNRWA”.
In order to cope with cuts last year, Lewis says that the agency had to make some tough choices to keep programmes running, including the decision not to replace retirees across education, health, sanitation and other social services.
“Talk to anybody in the camp, and they will tell you what it was like last year. They didn’t know if they were going to be able to send their kids to school next month, they didn’t know what was going to happen, they didn’t know if their services were going to be maintained,” she says.
“We have more children in the classroom now than we did two years ago, [and] we have less teachers. The patient-doctor ratio has gone up slightly and we don’t have enough sanitation labourers to keep the camp clean,” Lewis says. “It’s put additional pressure on the core services, but we have managed to keep everything going.
“If we had to stop our [education] programmes at the end of the summer, we would have 500,000 children no longer able to go to school across the region – 50 per cent of whom are girls. The instability that would create would be hugely problematic.”
In many respects, Conlon says, UNRWA acts as a quasi-government, making it “natural to blame the organisation that you see as the service provider”. Without its services, however, he says that the situation would “undoubtable be significantly worse”, as no other UN agency is capable of filling service gaps.
And camp residents would generally agree. Amireh says it is critical that the “essential” UNRWA-run schools remain open, even if this means that there is an unfortunate level of overcrowding in classrooms. “Imagine if UNRWA cancelled or terminated the educational services, how the situation would be,” she stresses. “Where will the children go; they will be in the streets.”
Despite the recent difficulties raised by the internal UN investigation, residents will be relieved that the UN has agreed in principle to extend UNRWA’s mandate – renewed every three years – to 2023.
The agency has become a symbol of the Palestinian refugee cause and increasing calls from the White House for the agency to be disbanded have not been welcomed. Despite his own criticism of the agency, Saqer says that the international community must continue to support it “until the plight of refugees is solved”.
This article was supported by a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund