The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) faces a severe financial crisis which could see core services to desperate Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank halted unless donors step in before the end of September.
“Currently we have a deficit of 101 million dollars and, as things stand now, UNRWA will struggle to function after September because we don’t have enough money to fund even our core activities for the last few months of the year,” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told IPS in an exclusive interview.
“However, following a number of stringent austerity measures already in place, we should be able to continue with life-saving, emergency services to the end of the year,” he added.
Due to the financial crisis, the contracts for 35 percent of the 137 internationals employed by UNRWA will end by Sep. 30 without further extension or renewal. The U.N. organisation has taken these steps to reduce costs while trying not to reduce basic services to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.
“UNRWA is facing financial crises on all fronts. Broadly speaking we have two sources of funding,” Gunness told IPS. “We have our general fund which funds our core services such as education, health relief and social services. Then we have our emergency funds which are for Gaza and the West Bank because there is a blockade and an occupation respectively.
“We’re also dealing with more than 400,000 displaced people in Syria, the 45,000 refugees who’ve fled to Lebanon and the 15,000 who’ve escaped over the border into Jordan.”
Following Israel’s devastating military campaign against Gaza in July and August last year, UNRWA launched a reconstruction initiative, worth 720 million dollars, at the international reconstruction conference in Cairo in October last year.
Part of the money was for rental subsidies for those Gazans whose homes were so damaged that they were uninhabitable and needed a roof over their heads, and part of it was for reconstruction.
“In February this year, we had to suspend that programme because there was a 585 million dollar shortfall. Due to the deficit not one single home in Gaza has been rebuilt, so there is a real crisis in regard to reconstruction,” said Gunness.
Last year in Syria, UNRWA launched an appeal for 417 million dollars but only 52 percent of this money was received. The shortfall forced the organisation to reduce its six cash distribution programmes from six to three.
Cash distributions have become one of UNRWA’s major emergency response programmes in Syria due to so many U.N. installations being bombed and destroyed as a result of the civil war raging there, thereby crippling its normal means of helping refugees.
With the money received for Syria, UNRWA was only able to distribute an average of 50 cents per refugee per day.
“Imagine trying to survive on 50 cents daily. It is almost impossible and although our donors have been very generous, they have not been generous enough,” said Gunness.
In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees from Syria rely on UNRWA for various things, including rental subsidies so that they can have a roof over their heads.
“We had been giving out a 100 dollar monthly rental allowance. This gets you very little in Lebanon, which is an expensive country,” Gunness told IPS.
“When I was last in Lebanon I visited a Palestinian refugee family in the poverty-stricken Shatila camp in Beirut. They were paying 200 dollars a month to live in a room 20 feet by 20 feet [6 metres by 6 metres] with a tiny bathroom and kitchen.
“Their rental subsidy was cut at the end of June and I suspect that family is now living on the street. This is the reality of the crash crisis for just one family of refugees from Syria who have been made homeless.
“And this is only one story that relates to the emergency funding UNRWA receives,” Gunness added.
“In relation to the general side of our funding, what we’ve seen over the years is a gradual increase in the structural deficit of our general fund which has led to the current deficit of 101 million dollars.”
UNRWA’s monthly running costs are 35 million dollars. This includes the salaries of 30, 000 staff members, 22,000 of whom are teachers, as well as the distribution of basic necessities for refugees such as food.
“So, unless someone steps in to alleviate the crisis, even tougher decisions may need to be made in the next few weeks and it is innocent refugees who will again suffer,” said Gunness.
Edited by Phil Harris