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UN agency for Palestinian refugees facing 'existential threat', says chief

Philippe Lazzarini warns that 'coordinated campaigns' to delegitimise UNRWA have pushed the agency to its limits
Palestinians receive their monthly food rations from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa) warehouse in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on 14 June 2022 (AFP)
Palestinians receive their monthly food rations from the UN Relief and Works Agency warehouse in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, on 14 June 2022 (AFP)

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is facing an existential threat, the body's commissioner-general warned on Thursday. 

In a statement addressed to the UN security council, Philippe Lazzarini said “chronic underfunding” of the agency's programme budget in the past decade had pushed it to its limits. 

He cited several factors that contributed to the crisis, including “coordinated campaigns to delegitimise UNRWA with a view to erode the rights of Palestine refugees” which he said were “increasing in frequency and in maliciousness”.

He also said shifting geopolitical priorities, regional dynamics and the emergence of new humanitarian crises have led to the deprioritisation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

“Until last year, the funding gap was managed through cost control, austerity and carryover of large liabilities from one year to the other,” Lazzarini said. “But today, we have no financial reserve. We have reached the limit of austerity and cost control measures.” 

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UNRWA was founded in December 1948 to provide relief programmes for around 750,000 Palestinian refugees expelled by Zionist militias from their villages and towns during the establishment of the state of Israel - an event known to Palestinians as the Nakba, or "catastrophe".

There are now 5.7 million refugees registered as eligible to receive aid from the organisation.

According to Lazzarini, more than 80 percent of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza live below the poverty line.

The US had been UNRWA's largest single donor, followed by the European Union, until 2018, when the administration of then-US President Donald Trump cut its yearly contribution from $360m to $60m, before cutting all funding in 2019 - leaving the organisation cash-strapped.

In April 2021, the administration of US President Joe Biden announced that it was planning to provide $235m of aid in a bid to engage with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and move forward with a two-state solution.

UNRWA confirmed at the time that it would receive $150m of this aid from the US, barely enough to support its 700 schools and 150 health clinics that help Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

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