Palestinian refugees are facing three-minute doctor consultations and classes of up to 50 children as the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) struggles to meet a $100m funding shortfall after cuts to UK aid budgets.
“We are in the danger zone,” says Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA commissioner general. “It would be a mistake to believe that because we have coped with the crisis we will avoid a situation where we have to stop our activities.”
Such an outcome would be devastating for many of the 5.8 million refugees that rely on the agency’s services. Since 1949, UNRWA has fulfilled several functions of government for stateless Palestinians across the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.
UNRWA is the primary health care provider for around two million Palestinians, and more than 500,000 children are educated in its schools. The agency provides welfare services, skills training, and humanitarian relief, providing a lifeline to victims of war, famine, and displacement.
Mr Lazzarini spoke to i in London between meetings with British MPs, diplomats, and NGOs. His primary mission is to convince politicians to reverse cuts to the Government’s contributions to UNRWA which threaten its ability to deliver vital services. The UK has reduced its funding from £70.6m in 2018 to £28.6m in 2021 as the Government slashed the overseas aid budget.
The UK is not alone. Under President Donald Trump, the US cancelled its support to the agency having been the single largest contributor. Funding has been only partially restored under Joe Biden. Another leading donor, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has sharply reduced its contributions.
The cuts have already bitten deep, says Mr Lazzarini. UNRWA health centres are now limited to providing three-minute consultations. Schools teach classes of up to 50 children. The agency has made sweeping redundancies to its workforce of around 30,000, and struggled to pay the salaries of those that remain. With a budget shortfall of $100m the future looks bleak.
“In the next phase, if the crisis continues, it could lead to the interruption of services,” says Mr Lazzarini, estimating the crunch will arrive in October.
Several factors have contributed to the crisis. “We suffer from political indifference,” he says. As the peace process has stagnated with little prospect of a resolution to the conflict, the commissioner general suggests it has been “deprioritised” by international partners with UNRWA suffering collateral damage.
The agency has also come under sustained fire from Israel and its supporters at home and abroad. Pressure groups have lobbied donors to defund UNRWA, alleging it uses school textbooks that promote terrorism and anti-Semitism.
The Trump administration ended US contributions to the agency alongside a legislative effort to reduce its mandate by stripping most Palestinians of refugee status, which entitles them to the right of return under UN Resolution 194.
Both moves were supported by Israel’s then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “UNRWA is an organisation that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem (and) the narrative of the right of return,” said Mr Netanyahu in 2018. “UNRWA needs to pass from this world.”
An EU-funded investigation into the textbook issue concluded that the books “adhere to UNESCO standards” and that Israeli allegations were “exaggerated”.
The conversation with Mr Lazzarini takes place shortly after nine European governments rejected Israeli terror charges against six Palestinian NGOs, which the commissioner general suggests have become an occupational hazard for relief workers in the Palestinian territories.
“There is less credibility to these claims than there used to be,” says Mr Lazzarini. For international partners with concerns “the first thing I say is to visit our schools, interact with the children and teachers. It is usually an eye-opener and the opinions after are very different”.
The director-general mounts a robust defence of his agency’s record. “We promote gender parity. We have a human rights curriculum and a school parliament. We are promoting critical thinking.” To critics who suggest the agency provides life support rather than life chances, Mr Lazzarini points to success stories. Nowras Mahal, an UNRWA student in Syria, who went on to work on the development of Covid-19 vaccines. A tech start-up in Gaza now provides IT services to the wider UN network.
A cessation of services would come at a devastating human cost and exacerbate security concerns, he says. “I believe it will further fuel the level of despair and distress in the camps… and the feeling that people have very little to lose any more. My advice is we should not test it.”