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Already embattled, UNRWA in Lebanon faces new threats

Aid agency's operations in Lebanon have already been curtailed in recent years
A demonstration in Chatila Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut on 22 December 2017 in support of the UN General Assembly vote to reject the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital (Dominika Ozynska/MEE)

BEIRUT – US plans to slash funding for the international agency tasked with aiding Palestinian refugees adds an extra layer of uncertainty to the already precarious position of Palestinians in Lebanon.

UNRWA officials said there will be no immediate reductions of services in Lebanon, but refugees relying on assistance from the agency are anxious about further cuts in the already shrinking health, education and food aid programmes.

Meanwhile, officials warned of disruptions to the country's stability and security if aid for the already impoverished Palestinian population is slashed.

In the Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian “refugee camp” – actually, a dense, urban neighbourhood – in Beirut’s southern suburbs, residents were on edge over the possibility of more service reductions.

Shadia Moussa, 36, has one son in university, another one working, and a 13-year-old daughter who attends an UNRWA-run school in the camp. Moussa hopes that her daughter will also go on to university, but said now the future seems uncertain.

'If UNRWA stops, she’ll stop [her education], too, and stay at home'

- Shadia Moussa, mother

“If UNRWA stays, God willing, she can continue,” Moussa said. “If UNRWA stops, she’ll stop, too, and stay at home.”

Even though class sizes have grown to as many as 50 students in a class, Moussa still says the UNRWA schools provide a better education than the Lebanese public schools, which are now also strained by the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugee children.

And her family can’t afford the thousands of dollars a year needed to pay for private school.

Decreasing aid

Ibrahim Sawtry, 23, another resident of the camp, who is studying at Lebanese International University and working for an NGO, said his father is disabled due to an illness that left him with brain damage and gets medical care and a small amount of cash assistance monthly from UNRWA.

Although the aid has decreased over the years – to about $100 a month – the family still depends on it, Sawtry said. Without the UNRWA aid, he said, he would likely have to quit the university and find a second job to support the family.

And he warned that aid cuts will likely lead to protests and unrest in Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian camps.

“When people suffer, you know what will happen,” he said. “It will make a lot of problems.”

Palestinian flags on sale in a street in the Burj al-Barajneh camp in a southern suburb of Beirut (AFP)
Huda Samra, a spokeswoman for UNRWA’s Lebanon office, said the agency is “working with absolute determination to ensure continuation of our services” and no immediate reductions are planned.

Samra said the organisation has stepped up fundraising efforts and will see how much funding comes in from other donors before making any decisions about changes to programmes.

“We’re not going to cut services now, despite the fact that the financial situation is very, very serious,” Samra said.

'We’re not going to cut services now, despite the fact that the financial situation is very, very serious'

- Huda Samra, spokeswoman for UNRWA’s Lebanon office

“We’re waiting until the end of the month to see how much funding will be made available through other donors and how long will the funds take us through the year.”

The United States is the largest contributor to UNRWA’s budget. It provided $368m, about one-third of the agency’s $1.1bn budget, in 2016.

Now, US officials say they will freeze $65m of the planned contribution of $125m for the first half of 2018.

US officials said future funds would be contingent on seeing “revisions made in how UNRWA operates” and on more “burden-sharing” by other countries.

Funds freezed

Previously, US President Donald Trump had posted on Twitter: “We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel.”

The tweet came amid mass protests in Palestine and elsewhere over Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

UNRWA’s total spending in Lebanon was $186m in 2016, including regular programmes as well as special projects, such as reconstruction of houses in the Nahr al-Bared camp, which is still being rebuilt after being largely destroyed in fighting between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam, an Islamist militant organisation, in 2007.

There are 450,000 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA in Lebanon, although the actual number in the country is believed to be much lower, because the agency does not track Palestinians who emigrate out of Lebanon.

Lebanon’s first-ever official census of Palestinian refugees released last month put the actual number at around 174,000. Lebanon is also now hosting some 32,000 Palestinian-Syrian refugees.

Palestinians in Lebanon less than half previous estimate, census shows
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UNRWA teaches 37,000 children in its schools in Lebanon, Samra said, and another 1,000 students in vocational centres. It also serves about 160,000 patients a year at its health facilities, and 61,000 refugees receive food assistance.

The Palestinians and their descendants have never been given citizenship in Lebanon, in part out of fear of eroding their theoretical “right of return” and in part because of demographic anxieties.

Lebanon – which fought a bloody and partially sect-driven civil war from 1975 to 1990, in which the Palestinians were both militants and victims of massacres – allocates its political positions based on a sectarian power-sharing arrangement. Many Lebanese Christians and Shia Muslims fear that naturalising the primarily Sunni Palestinians would upset this delicate balance.

Palestinians are also prohibited from working in a large range of skilled professions and from owning property. Unemployment among Palestinians stands at about 18 percent, compared to just under seven percent in Lebanon as a whole.

The Burj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut is home to thousands of Palestinian and now Syrian refugees (Dominika Ożyńska/MEE)

The economic situation leaves Palestinians heavily reliant on UNRWA’s services. But even before this new threat to funding, UNRWA had been financially struggling. Cuts in programmes in Lebanon – including reductions in the level of teaching staffs in schools, housing subsidies and healthcare assistance – have sparked protests in the Palestinian camps in recent years.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri alluded to the cuts last month while celebrating the release of the Palestinian census last month and called on international donors to give more.

The agency’s financial state, Hariri said, “threatens its programmes, directly and negatively affects the basic requirements of Palestine refugees in Lebanon”.

He added: “There are some in the international community who do not want to help but want to disable UNRWA and cancel it if possible. Our goal must be clear: to fight the abolition of UNRWA and to support it.”

The chairman of the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee, Hassan Mneymneh, warned on Thursday that the US decision to freeze UNRWA funding could have implications for security in Lebanon and beyond.

In a statement, Mneymneh warned that “putting this burden on Lebanon, which is suffering from political tensions and deteriorating economic conditions, will lead to the strengthening of the climate of extremism, which may reflect not only in this host country concerned but might expand beyond our borders”.

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