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What you need to know: UNRWA and Palestinian refugees

UN's Palestinian refugee agency helps more than five million people, and chiefs say US decision to withhold $65m in funding could be catastrophic
Palestinians take part in a protest calling for better living conditions for people outside UNRWA office, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, 17 January (Reuters)

UNRWA chief Pierre Krahenbuhl said on Wednesday that the US decision to withhold $65m in aid to the UN agency would affect the lives of millions of Palestinian refugees.

"At stake is the dignity and human security of millions of Palestine refugees, in need of emergency food assistance and other support in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip," said Krähenbühl in a statement.

Krahenbuhl said the agency would launch a global fundraising campaign to ensure that its schools and clinics remained open.

But US aid to the agency has been its saving grace for years. It is the largest single donor to UNRWA, providing more than $350m last year. The next largest, the EU, gave less than half that figure. Here is a summary of the agency, why it was created, and who it helps:

UNRWA parcels on their way to Gaza (Reuters)

What is UNRWA?

The UN Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) was established on 8 of December 1948, following the Arab-Israeli war.

Its mandate was carry out relief programmes that responded to the needs of almost 750,000 Palestinian refugees who were expelled by Zionist gangs from their villages and towns.

It is a subsidiary organ of the United Nations General Assembly and its mandate is renewed every three years.

It began operating in May 1950 in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, West Bank and Gaza Strip and within the areas of the newly established state of Israel.

The agency’s services focus on education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance, including in times of armed conflict.

Who does it help?

UNRWA adopted the UN General Assembly 194 resolution definition of Palestinian refugees as "persons whose regular place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict".

The resolution stated that "[Palestinian] refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return."

Since then, UNRWA operations have grown considerably - the current figure of Palestinian refugees registered as eligible to receive aid is 5.15 million.

UNRWA provides health services to an estimated 3.1 million Palestinian refugees, as well as social services and loans to enable Palestinian business.

The agency also draws its employees from local populations - according to 2004 report, 99 percent of staff are locally recruited Palestinians.

What does the US decision mean?

Krahenbuhl, the head of UNRWA, said 25,000 children at 700 UNRWA-funded schools could be affected, as well as Palestinian access to primary health care.

These schools operate camps such as Yarmouk in Syria; Burj al-Barajneh and Rashidieh in Lebanon, Zarka and Jerash in Jordan, Jenin and Hebron in the West Bank, and in Jabalyia and Khan Younis in Gaza Strip.

He added that UNRWA has 30,000 full-time professional and experienced staff, such as doctors, nurses, school principals and teachers, guards and sanitation labourers, social and psychosocial workers, administrative and support staff.

Has this happened before?

UNRWA already faced desperate and chronic financial shortages before Trump’s announcement.

In 2015, the agency nearly closed all its schools due to financial shortfalls, and the organisation carried over a deficit of tens of millions of dollars last year.

The fear is that the US fund cut will lead to schools and even hospitals closing for Palestinians, though Krahenbuhl said the $60m would enable them to keep them open in the short term at least.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said on Wednesday that the cut would lead to the "most severe funding crisis in the history of the agency".

Abbas will meet European Union officials in Brussels in the coming days and may well ask for their support in filling the funding hole.

European diplomats, however, say the chances of major funding increases are limited, with the Gulf Arab states another potential option.

- AFP contributed to this report

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