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Palestinians in Syria, Lebanon may feel US UNRWA cuts 'within weeks'

Agency official says funding shortfall 'most profound crisis' since the Palestinians were displaced in 1948
Fuad Abu Khaled with his daughters in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp (AFP)

BEIRUT - Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon who rely on support from the United Nations’ Relief and Welfare Agency are facing a “profound crisis” after the US withheld much of its funding earlier this month, agency officials said.

Exacerbating existing shortfalls within the agency tasked with assisting Palestinian refugees, the impact of the US cuts "creates a profound and immediate risk" to UNRWA's operation and may be felt within weeks, the officials said.

'If we don’t have this help to continue our schooling, it will destroy our lives and destroy our dreams'

- Haya Nemer, 15, Syrian-Palestinian living in Lebanon

“The current severity of these emergencies and their impact on the populations is unprecedented and constitutes perhaps the most profound crisis Palestinians have faced since they left Palestine and went into displacement in 1948,” said Mohammed Abdi Adar, director of UNRWA affairs in Syria.

The US announced on 16 January that it was holding back $65m of a $125m payment to UNRWA, demanding that agency make unspecified reforms.

The move came weeks after US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, sparking widespread protests. In reaction, Palestinian leaders had said they would not participate in a US-led peace process and, in return, Trump repeatedly threatened to cut their aid.

The US is normally the largest contributor to UNRWA programmes, but the $60m released so far is designated only for operations in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan, throwing the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon into uncertainty.

Palestinians who fled violence in the Syrian refugee camp of Yarmouk at the Masnaa Lebanese border crossing with Syria as people stamp their documents before entering Lebanon in December 2012 (AFP)

In an attempt to make up the shortfall, UNRWA officials launched a fundraising appeal in Beirut on Wednesday, with an aim to raise $409m for this year's operations in Syria and for Palestinian-Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.

Many of the estimated 560,000 Palestinians living in Syria who were registered with UNRWA before the war are now doubly displaced. Of those, about 120,000 have fled the country and another 254,000 are internally displaced in Syria, according to the agency.

Some 32,500 Palestinian Syrians have fled to Lebanon, where they joined about 174,000 Palestinian refugees already living in the country, as well as more than a million Syrian refugees who are not Palestinian.

US demands reforms

Along with the education and health services provided by UNRWA, many Palestinian Syrians in Syria and displaced Palestinian-Syrians in Lebanon rely on cash assistance to pay for rent and food.

If the situation in Syria stabilises over the coming year, UNRWA will also be assisting increasing numbers of returning Palestinian-Syrians with resettlement.

Officials with the US State Department declined to say why Syria and Lebanon were excluded from the funding released so far.

“Historically, many other donors to UNRWA have chosen to direct their funding to a particular field or activity; our actions are no different, and we are confident that our funding is supporting urgent humanitarian needs,” a department spokesperson said in a statement.

US officials have said they want to see reforms made in the refugee agency before giving more funding.

US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert (AFP)

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters last week: “The system and the structure shouldn’t be set up in such a way that every year they are running out of money and need to plead for emergency funds. So it’s just not a sustainable programme the way the funding mechanism is currently set up.”

Earlier this week, seven countries – Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Russia – reportedly fast-tracked their funding while Belgium, Kuwait, the Netherlands and Ireland pledged they would send their funds soon.

But Abdi Adar said no new funding has so far been committed.

'Then the war came'

In Lebanon, officials said some of the impacts of the cuts could be felt soon. Palestinian-Syrian refugees in Lebanon receive monthly allotments of $100 per family to help with housing and food costs.

Given that nearly 90 percent of the displaced Palestinians from Syria are living in Lebanon are below the poverty line, many depend heavily on the UNRWA assistance, said Claudio Cordone, UNRWA’s director in Lebanon.

But if new funding does not come in by the end of February, Cordone said, those payments will stop. Likewise, he said, some health centre workers and instructors in vocational institutes could be laid off after March without new funding.

'The stakes are huge, first and foremost for the individuals we are assisting but also for the stability of Lebanon and for the region as a whole'

- Claudio Cordone, UNRWA direct in Lebanon

Syrian-Palestinian youth living in Lebanon said their greatest fear is that the disruptions to UNRWA aid will mean an end to their schooling, which in many cases was already disrupted by the war before they fled Syria.

Fifteen-year-old Haya Nemer said before the war in Syria, her family had a good life in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus.

“The situation was great – secure, stable, but then the war came,” she said. “We were going to school under bombing.”

Her family fled Syria in 2015 and now lives in the Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian camp in Beirut’s southern suburbs, where Nemer attends an UNRWA-run school. She said she hopes to finish her studies and go on to study medicine at university, but the uncertainty about UNRWA’s fate has made her also question her future.

“If we don’t have this help to continue our schooling, it will destroy our lives and destroy our dreams,” Nemer said.

Cordone also warned – as have a number of Lebanese political leaders – that worsening conditions in the Palestinian camps could lead to unrest and violence.

“The stakes are huge, first and foremost for the individuals we are assisting but also for the stability of Lebanon and for the region as a whole,” he said.

US officials have said they are still reviewing whether they will contribute more later in the year. Last year, the US gave about $350m to the refugee agency, nearly one third of UNRWA's $1.2bn budget.