Palestinian refugees may suffer terrible toll after US cancels funding

Trump administration’s withdrawal of funding from UN agency Unrwa a bitter blow

 Palestinian students attending a class at Haifa School, which is run by the United Nations Works and Relief Agency for Palestinian Refugees (Unrwa) in Beirut, Lebanon. Photograph: Nabil Mounzer/EPA

Palestinian students attending a class at Haifa School, which is run by the United Nations Works and Relief Agency for Palestinian Refugees (Unrwa) in Beirut, Lebanon. Photograph: Nabil Mounzer/EPA

 

Unless new funds are found soon, the Trump administration’s decision on Friday to cancel the long-standing US financial contribution to the UN agency caring for 5.4 million Palestinian refugees will have a devastating impact on vulnerable refugees and the stressed economies of the occupied West Bank and Gaza, as well as host countries Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

For decades the US has provided between one-quarter and one-third of Unrwa’s budget, citing the need to promote stability in the Levant. The US contribution for this year was reduced from $365 million to $65 million, and $200 million in funding for the West Bank and Gaza in US AID humanitarian and development assistance was terminated.

“Disruption of Unrwa services will have extremely dangerous humanitarian, political and security implications for refugees and for the whole region,” said Jordan’s foreign minister Ayman Safadi. He said it could “consolidate an environment of despair”, deepen tensions and harm peacemaking efforts.

The economies of the occupied Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, could face meltdown as they depend on Unrwa’s foreign currency injections

Jordan, Japan, the EU, Sweden and Turkey are co-sponsoring a meeting on September 27th in New York to raise funds for Unrwa’s 5.4 million dependents. Of Unrwa’s 30,000 employees most are Palestinians, making the agency a major source of income for refugee families.

Education consumes 54 per cent of Unrwa funds; healthcare 17 per cent; 29 per cent is dedicated to welfare and relief programmes and camp infrastructure. Unrwa says it will close its 711 schools with an enrolment of 526,000 by the end of this month if money is not raised to cover its $217 million deficit. The EU and several European and Gulf countries have promised to raise funds.

Unrwa is the main provider of essential supplies and services in Gaza, which has a population of 2 million, and where 500,000 of the 1.3 million refugees dwell in eight camps. In the West Bank there are 800,000 Unrwa registered refugees, out of a population of 2.9 million. Most Palestinians in Gaza and a large percentage in the West Bank are stateless.

Jordan, with a population of 9.5 million, hosts 2.2 million Palestinian refugees, most of whom have citizenship. Some 370,000 live in 10 camps receiving Unrwa services.

A majority of the 464,000 stateless Palestinian refugees in Lebanon – which has a population of 6 million – live in 12 Unrwa camps. Poverty is rife. They are not permitted to work in 20 professions, making them heavily dependent on Unrwa.

Impact of war

Until war erupted in 2011, the 534,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria enjoyed the same privileges as 23 million Syrians without being naturalised. Since then the largest of the nine camps, Yarmouk, south of Damascus has been devastated, its 112,000 inhabitants displaced. They and Palestinians living elsewhere have suffered high poverty levels.

Defunding Unrwa could have serious consequences for the region and the world. The economies of the occupied Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, could face meltdown as they depend on Unrwa’s foreign currency injections as well as its provision of services that local authorities cannot afford.

If deprived of schooling, Palestinian youths could join Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other international radical groups. Driven from territory seized in Syria and Iraq, these groups are devising new strategies for striking at Arab, Iranian, Russian and western targets. Preoccupied with the challenges posed by Israel, substantial numbers of Palestinians have not, so far, been recruited. This could change.

The mentor of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and “father of the global jihad”, Abdullah Azzam, was a Palestinian from a West Bank village. He convinced bin Laden to place Palestine high on his agenda.

Having served as dumping grounds for refugees from neighbouring conflicts, Lebanon and Jordan, each hosting more than a million Syrian refugees, have refused to accept more and have accepted a Russian plan to repatriate Syrians as soon as possible.

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