A pupil stands at the entrance of a school run by United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images)

UNRWA Schools Open Despite Financial Crisis

UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees facing $150 million budget deficit

The opening this week of the fall semester at United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools in the Middle East comes amid the agency’s fiscal crisis that began with a reduction in US funding.

Adnan Abu Hasna, a Gaza-based spokesman for UNRWA, told The Media Line that the agency had a $150 million deficit, and that unless the shortfall was made up the agency would be unable to completely fund operations and salaries for 2019.

“We opened the new school semester despite the financial challenges,” Abu Hasna elaborated. “The number of the Palestinian refugee students increases as do their needs, especially in the Gaza Strip that is experiencing a difficult humanitarian situation.”

He added that “UNRWA’s income doesn’t cover its expenses because of the growing need among the Palestinian refugees for the agency’s services.”

In August 2018, the State Department announced it would withhold more than $200 million in aid from UNRWA-administered programs in the West Bank and Gaza to ensure that funds were “spent in line with the national interests of the country and US taxpayers.” The United States soon stopped giving aid to UNRWA altogether.

Washington’s contribution had hitherto accounted for about half of UNRWA’s budget.

As a result, UNRWA has urged the international community to make up the shortfall.

On Sunday, Pierre Krahenbuhl, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, said the agency would not remain silent in the face of what he called attempts to delegitimize the rights of refugees.

Krahenbuhl stressed at the opening of the academic year for 169 UNRWA schools for some 118,000 students in Jordan that the agency’s mission was not limited to providing services.

“UNRWA also defends the rights of refugees,” he said during his speech. “I have not seen any refugees demanding more assistance in exchange for ceding and recognizing their just rights.”

He said that 43 countries had increased their funding since the US cuts.

For example, the Afghan government donated $1 million to UNRWA in March, announcing the move during the Conference of Palestinian Ambassadors Accredited to the European Continent in Istanbul.

Omar Abdullah, head of UN affairs at the Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry, told The Media Line that UNRWA came to enforce the rights of the Palestinian refugees as embodied in United Nations resolutions, and to assist and empower them until they “returned to their homeland.”

“UNRWA managed to form a definition of the Palestinian refugees in a positive way, the thing that was missing,” Abdullah continued. “The importance of the agency goes beyond the humanitarian services it provides. From a legal point of view, it protects the Palestinian right of return [to inside Israel].”

UNRWA’s definition of refugee is controversial, since, unlike the definition used by UNHCR, the UN agency for all other refugees, it includes, among other things, persons who have acquired citizenship in other countries.

Abdullah said UNRWA was being targeted for opposing American and Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians. “In general there is a problem between the American system on one side, and the international multilateral system that is based on international law on the other side. UNRWA is part of the international system.”

Last month, the Netherlands and Switzerland also suspended funding of UNRWA, following accusations of corruption on the part of senior officials at the agency.

Switzerland’s suspension of funding will affect the agency in 2020, as the $22.5 million it earmarked for 2019 has already been paid. The Netherlands, which contributes about $15 million to the agency annually, decided to suspend payments until it received “a satisfactory response” from UN headquarters in New York.

“The educational situation in the UNRWA schools became very difficult since the agency’s financial crisis,” Mustafa, a Palestinian refugee parent in Lebanon who asked The Media Line to withhold his last name, said. Each classroom had more than 50 students, he said, and therefore, “the students don’t receive a proper education, which ends up with most of them leaving school.

“The families who can afford private schools already moved their kids, but most of us don’t have money,” Mustafa added.

Fidaa, a Palestinian refugee parent in Jordan, told to The Media Line there was a clear decline in hygiene inside the schools and related health service facilities. “We stand by UNRWA and now with what the agency is going through, but our kids are paying the price and it’s not fair.”

The agency, which employs some 30,000 people, mostly Palestinians, supports more than five million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, providing health care, education and social services.

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