UN agency for Palestinians says lacks funds to pay full salaries

AFP , Monday 9 Nov 2020

A Palestinian worker stands at the entrance gate of an aid distribution center run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), at Beach refugee camp in Gaza City November 9, 2020. REUTERS

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, hammered by US cuts, said Monday it lacks the funds to pay full November salaries but is confident President-elect Joe Biden's administration will restore support.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) "never recovered" from the total funding cut imposed by President Donald Trump in 2018, agency spokeswoman Tamara Alrifai told AFP.

Before Trump ended US support, Washington had been providing UNRWA $300 million a year, roughly a third of its core annual budget.

Alrifai said 2019 shortfalls were filled by additional support from several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.

Both the European Union and individual European states, notably Germany, also helped close the gap, she said.

This year, "financial support waned," Alrifai added, noting that the coronavirus pandemic "didn't help", as key donors faced increased domestic financial pressures.

"It was with great regret that I informed our staff today that we don't have sufficient funding at this stage to honour their salaries this month," agency head Philippe Lazzarini said in a statement.

If it cannot raise $70 million by the end of the month, UNRWA will not be able to pay full salaries in November or December, the statement added.

The funding shortfall affects 28,000 staffers, spread across Jordan, Lebanon, the occupied West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Only those whose work is covered by special emergency budgets could be spared, Alrifai said.

Israel had been critical of UNRWA before Trump's election, arguing its presence was no longer necessary decades after the conflict following Israel's creation in 1948 that created some 750,000 Palestinian refugees.

The Jewish state has also criticised rules under which Palestinians can hand down refugee status to their children.

- 'Engaged' with Biden -
After taking office in 2017, the staunchly pro-Israel Trump administration began echoing Israeli criticism of the agency before cutting funds the following year.

A year after the US cut, UNRWA was further rocked by an internal ethics report alleging mismanagement at the agency's highest levels.

That led a number of European countries to temporarily suspend support, but Alrifai said "the page has turned" on that episode, with the senior management group having been replaced and key donors voicing full confidence in the agency.

On the possible impact of Biden's election win, Alrifai said UNRWA was "very optimistic the US will resume its support".

Asked if the agency had received specific commitments from the incoming administration, she said: "We have engaged very closely with the Biden campaign team and they do understand the uniqueness of UNRWA for the stability of the region."

Biden's 2020 campaign website said he would restore "humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people" but did not directly mention UNRWA.

The agency's core annual budget for 2020 stood at $806 million, with an additional funding for emergency programmes, including the coronavirus response and Palestinians caught up in Syria's conflict.

Founded in 1949, UNRWA runs schools and provides health services as well as other humanitarian aid to an estimated 5.7 million Palestinians with refugee status.

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