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UNRWA chief warns Palestinian refugee agency facing funding shortfall

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Palestinians walk past the shuttered headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza City during a general strike of employees in UNRWA institutions on November 29, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

The head of the UN’s relief agency for Palestinian refugees has warned of the consequence of a major funding crisis, saying it was unable to pay 28,000 employees on time this month and may cut vital services to millions of people.

Speaking to reporters in Jordan on Tuesday, Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner-General of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said the staff went on strike after being informed that salaries would be delayed, but halted the action following mediation.

“If UNRWA health services are compromised in the middle of a global pandemic, COVID-19 vaccination rollout will come to an end. Maternal and childcare will stop, half a million girls and boys not knowing if they can continue learning, and over two million of the poorest Palestinian refugees will not get cash and food assistance,” he said.

“The humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees keep increasing while funding to the agency has stagnated since 2013.”

Lazzarini also noted that UNRWA had raised enough donations at a recent conference in Brussels to cover up to 48% of its budget in 2022 and 2023.

The agency, he added, generated $60 million toward a $100 million shortfall until the end of the year to keep services running.

“I’m still not yet in a position to say when the November salaries will be paid,” he said.

UNRWA is responsible for helping nearly 5.7 million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, by running schools, food distribution programs, and health clinics.

It went through a management crisis in 2019, when its previous head resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct, nepotism and other abuses of authority at the agency.

UNRWA was hit hard in 2018, when former president Donald Trump halted US funding. However, the re-engagement of the US under President Joe Biden has been offset by the lack of commitments from the Persian Gulf Arab states, and by decreases in grants from other countries such as the UK.

Lazzarini said that the resumption of US support for the Palestinin refugee agency this year was offset by a reduction in funding by other donors.

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