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UNRWA launches emergency coronavirus appeal for Palestinian refugees

Agency is facing 'worst financial crisis' since its inception in 1950
UNRWA's director in Washington has said agency only has enough funding to last until end of May (Reuters)

The UN's agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has launched an emergency appeal to fund its response for the coronavirus pandemic.

The money will go towards health care, sanitation, hygiene and education for the next three months, the agency said in a statement.

"We have seen how the crisis is disproportionally hitting the poorest and most destitute communities around the world," said UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini.

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"This is sadly also true for Palestine refugees who are amongst the most vulnerable populations in the Middle East," Lazzarini said.

Earlier this week, UNRWA's director in Washington, Elizabeth Campbell, said the agency only has enough funding to last until the end of this month.

Campbell said the agency was facing its "worst financial crisis" since its inception in 1950. This year, it has secured only a third of its $1.2bn annual budget.

The United States, previously the largest donor, in 2018 cut $350m in annual aid to UNRWA, which tends to the humanitarian needs of about five million Palestinian refugees.

The cuts have led to a major shortfall in UNRWA's coffers, fuelling despair and protests during recent months in Gaza. In the Palestinian enclave besieged for 11 years, 1.3 million people out of two million are refugees, and 80 per cent of the population are dependent on aid.

'Devastating consequences'

More than 700,000 Palestinians were forced from their land in the events leading to the establishment of the state of Israel. Surviving refugees and their descendants still live in camps in neighbouring Arab countries, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"Most refugees UNRWA serves live under the poverty line and lack the safety net needed to absorb the financial and medical shocks created by the Covid-19 pandemic," Lazzarini said.

"They are now facing devastating consequences to their physical, social and economic well being."

Voices in Washington have urged President Donald Trump to provide aid to UNRWA, with some members of Congress writing a letter to the administration calling for the release of financial assistance to Palestinians through a special programme. 

Despite the aid deficit, UNRWA has been tackling the coronavirus pandemic by distributing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to thousands of health-care workers and introducing triage systems to help health centres screen patients with symptoms.

"As long as the global crisis persists, UNRWA will continue to adapt the way it works so that it responds to the needs and expectations of Palestine refugees," Lazzarini said.