Arab Times

Refugee agency warns of in­sta­bil­ity amid cri­sis

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BEIRUT, Sept 17, (AP): The UN agency for Pales­tinian refugees is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a fi­nan­cial cri­sis that could force it to halt some ser­vices to an al­ready im­pov­er­ished pop­u­la­tion of more than 5 mil­lion peo­ple, the head of the agency said Wed­nes­day.

Philippe Laz­zarini also warned in an in­ter­view with The As­so­ci­ated Press in Beirut that the spread of coro­n­avirus, an eco­nomic melt­down in Le­banon and a huge deficit in UNRWA’s bud­get are deep­en­ing the hope­less­ness among Pales­tinian refugees, some of whom are try­ing to flee the Mediter­ranean na­tion on mi­grant boats. UNRWA was es­tab­lished to aid the 700,000 Pales­tini­ans who fled or were forced from their homes dur­ing the war sur­round­ing Is­rael’s es­tab­lish­ment in 1948. It now pro­vides ed­u­ca­tion, health care, food and other ser­vices to 5.8 mil­lion refugees and their de­scen­dants in the West Bank, Gaza, Jor­dan, Syria and Le­banon.

UNRWA’s fi­nan­cial cri­sis was sparked by the loss of all funding from the United States, its largest donor, in 2018. The US gave $360 mil­lion to UNRWA in 2017, but only $60 mil­lion in 2018, and noth­ing last year or so far this year.

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump said in Jan­uary 2018 that the Pales­tini­ans must re­turn to peace talks with Is­rael to re­ceive US aid money. He has since put forth a plan for re­solv­ing the con­flict that heav­ily fa­vors Is­rael and was re­jected by the Pales­tini­ans.

“I do be­lieve that ceas­ing our ac­tiv­ity in a con­text where there is such a level of de­spair, such a level of hope­less­ness, can only fuel the feel­ing that the Pales­tinian refugees are aban­doned by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity,” said Laz­zarini, who took of­fice in March.

Laz­zarini said sup­port­ing UNRWA “is one of the best in­vest­ments in sta­bil­ity in the re­gion at a time of ex­tra­or­di­nary un­pre­dictabil­ity and volatil­ity.”

“We can­not let the sit­u­a­tion get worse in a highly volatile re­gion,” he said.

The Swiss hu­man­i­tar­ian ex­pert said UNRWA is fac­ing an es­ti­mated short­fall of about $200 mil­lion between now and the end of 2020 if the agency wants to main­tain all the ser­vices in its five fields of op­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing schools, health cen­ters and so­cial wel­fare.

Laz­zarini said the coro­n­avirus is hav­ing “a huge eco­nomic and fi­nan­cial im­pact also on our donor base.” He said most donor coun­tries are in re­ces­sion at a time when Pales­tini­ans need even more aid be­cause of the pan­demic and var­i­ous lock­downs.

UNRWA has reg­is­tered 6,876 con­firmed cases among Pales­tinian refugees, most of them in the West Bank, where some 5,000 cases have been de­tected. Le­banon, which hosts tens of thou­sands of Pales­tini­ans, reg­is­tered 430 cases in refugee camps.

“We have peo­ple be­ing more and more in de­spair ex­pect­ing UNRWA to de­liver more ser­vices, at a time UNRWA is al­ready ex­pe­ri­enc­ing fi­nan­cial cri­sis,” Laz­zarini said. “It makes it much, much harder to mo­bi­lize the nec­es­sary re­sources.”

Laz­zarini on Wed­nes­day dis­cussed con­di­tions of Pales­tinian refugees in Le­banon with Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun and out­go­ing Prime Minister Has­san Diab. Aoun called for the re­turn of Pales­tini­ans who fled to Le­banon in re­cent years from Syria’s civil war.

The U.N. of­fi­cial said he met with Pales­tini­ans in refugee camps dur­ing his visit to Le­banon who spoke about their hard­ships amid the coun­try’s worst eco­nomic and fi­nan­cial cri­sis in decades. Le­banon’s lo­cal cur­rency has lost 80 per­cent of its value, wip­ing away the life sav­ings of Le­banese and Pales­tini­ans alike.

“There is a re­ally deep sense of hope­less­ness and de­spair to­day in the Pales­tinian camps,” he said, adding that some fam­i­lies have been forced to cut back on food pur­chases.

“I be­lieve that de­spair and hope­less­ness in a sit­u­a­tion like this one can in­deed lead to vi­o­lence and to in­sta­bil­ity,” he said.

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