By: Alessandra Perez
February 21, 2022
The UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is a key agency making extraordinary contributions to their communities and the world at large. In addition to providing more than half a million children with high quality education, UNRWA has also invested in human development and offered “lifelines of hope and opportunity” for Palestinian refugees. “An investment in UNRWA is an investment in peace and hope,” opined a top UN official. Yet, despite UNRWA’s pivotal role in promoting regional stability and influencing generations of lives, it continues to face an existential crisis: a lack of sufficient funding, resulting in a potential to be used as a political pawn.
UN Chief, Secretary-General António Guterres, argued that UNRWA must be protected from ulterior political motives, and focus should be directed at the group’s ability to carry out its General Assembly mandate and its unrelenting commitment to humanitarian principles and shared UN values. However, a lack of adequate resources severely hinders UNRWA’s ability to assist Palestine refugees in a predictable way. These recurring funding crises have led UNRWA to introduce austerity measures, a set of economic policies usually consisting of tax increases, spending cuts, or a combination of both to reduce budget deficits, but these too have reached their limits. To address this need for adequate resources, including human resources, the Secretary-General has asked the General Assembly for additional posts from the UN Regular Budget and made two specific requests: (1) to bridge the immediate funding gap to keep UNRWA’s essential health, education, and services active; and (2) for Member States to match the generosity of the countries that host Palestinian refugees by stepping up longer-term commitments and solidarity. Mr. Guterres stressed the need to “collectively find a path towards more predictable, sufficient and sustainable funding for the agency, including through multi-year commitments” as a disruption of services and salaries would have a crippling impact on a region already struggling with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In January 2022, the UNRWA announced its 2022 operating budget proposal, which necessitated US $1.6 billion in funding to continue to serve Palestine refugees in Occupied Palestinian Territory (oPt), Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. This proposal includes additional emergency funding to address humanitarian needs arising from crises in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon. For example, shortly after its budget proposal release, the UNRWA urged Israeli forces to immediately halt all evictions and demolitions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, after an entire family was forced out of their long-term home the previous day. At 3am on January 19th, Israeli police evicted the Salhiyya family from their two adjacent homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem and later tore down the structures, a move which UNRWA’s West Bank field office vehemently condemned. The 15-member Salhiyya family, which included an older woman and young child, had been living in Sheikh Jarrah for nearly 40 years, but in a matter of hours their homes and possessions were destroyed, and several family members were injured and/or arrested. Staff who visited the scene observed the complete destruction of the property, with school bags, clothes, and family photos still partially visible beneath the rubble. In their official statement, the UNRWA asserted that, under international humanitarian law, “the forcible transfer of protected persons, as well as the destruction of real or personal property belonging . . . to private persons by Israel, as the occupying power, is strictly forbidden, except where . . . absolutely necessary by imperative military reasons, or for the security of the population under occupation.”
The UNRWA stated that, sadly, cases like the Salhiyya’s are not unique. An estimated 218 Palestinian households comprised of some 970 people, including 424 children, currently face imminent threat of eviction, and roughly 2.3 million Palestinian refugees are living in poverty while the pandemic continues to threaten health and livelihoods. The UNRWA called on Israeli authorities to abide by international law and ensure, as the occupying power, that Palestinian refugees and civilians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are protected. To date, UNRWA provides services and programs, including education, health, and food assistance, to more than five million Palestinians across the Middle East, illustrating the lifesaving role of UNRWA and its indispensable contribution to stability in the region. If UNRWA were fully funded across its full range of services, it may continue its efforts towards breaking the cycle of despair among Palestinian refugees through measures such as providing some $31.2 million in microfinance loans and carrying out vital structural improvements to refugee camps. Thus, the amount UNRWA requested for 2022 will “directly contribute to the wellbeing of Palestine refugees, to efforts to combat and contain COVID-19 and to regional stability,” urged Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s Commissioner-General. To preserve UNRWA’s role as an irreplaceable and trusted lifeline, the international community must step up and provide sufficient and predictable funding so it may continue providing Palestine refugees “with a sense of security and normality they deserve.”