‘Gates close on Palestinian refugees’

By Ms Amal Albedairi

BBC Palestinian Service

Photo: paulfernanducci/albertsonphotography/flickr

UNRWA’s estimated budget is less than $500m For 40 years, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) has been helping Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jordan. They number four million, most of them born in camps and communities run by UNRWA in those countries. But lately it has been the agency’s staff that are the victims of what Palestinians and other critics call a political fight. Aid workers are worried that the total funding shortfall could set the agency back a generation. Funding cuts The issues which drew this problem on were threefold: the collapse of talks over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which means the continuation of Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank, and President Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to sign up to a 1993 peace treaty with Israel. Before these setbacks, UNRWA was being looked upon as a civilised, well-run organisation carrying out its mandate. US President Barack Obama had personally intervened to try to move the negotiations forward. Aid workers are worried the agency will lose more of its funds “But we were suddenly and abruptly plunged into the abyss of political crisis,” said George Tremblay, director of the UNRWA emergencies department. The agency received less than $500m (£320m) for its $1.25bn budget in 2010, almost entirely from the United States. It has also been hit by the European Union’s decision not to fully renew UNRWA’s funding as well as the so-called Cash to Chambers initiative launched by the Israeli government in which it offers bank deposits to Palestinians who refuse to have their children registered as refugees with UNRWA. This is because the agency’s role, as outlined in the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Covenant, is to provide “international aid” to those displaced by “those aggressors who perpetrate war crimes against our homeland and people”. To make matters worse, the organisation’s income was cut in half by a decision of the British parliament. Some of its work was cut because aid worker salaries are much higher than what the West European countries give. So before long, some staff were withdrawn. “The crisis is extreme,” said another aid worker. “The doors have closed on us.” Eventually, 15,000 more refugees – including 700 teachers and 700 more teachers’ assistants – were removed from the UNRWA rolls in the West Bank and Gaza as of early 2010. Another factor which has hit UNRWA hardest in recent months has been the continued Israeli settlement building in the West Bank. It means that, in the long term, tens of thousands of refugees and their descendants will no longer be registered by UNRWA as refugees. It will continue to operate, but now it will have to rely heavily on the donations of individual governments. UNRWA became established in 1949 The agency was established in 1949 after the establishment of the State of Israel to help the refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, which is generally known as the Nakba. Since then, UNRWA has been rapidly losing the funds that are needed to keep its mission up and running. Local donors are worried about the future of their programmes. “At the end of the day, many governments have no choice but to respect the will of the donor community, and unless the donor community receives support, we won’t get the money,” said Brian Washburn, former head of UNRWA in Jordan. “So if people ask us to continue our mandate, they will get the money. “But if they do not, then there will be a serious problem, and it will be up to governments to find a solution for the Palestinian refugees.”

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