UNRWA’s head, Philippe Lazzarini, told journalists in Geneva that competing global crises and skyrocketing levels of poverty and unemployment among Palestinian refugees have put tremendous strain on them — and on the agency — which began the year with a backlog of nearly 70 million dollars.
“On the one hand, we are being asked to provide public services to one of the most disadvantaged communities in the region. We are clearly a UN agency (and) adhere to UN values, but in reality we are funded as an NGO, which means we rely on voluntary funding from member states.”
Most Palestinian refugees now live below the poverty line and many depend on humanitarian aid, including money and food, from UNRWA.
“I thought they had bottomed out some time ago, but I find every time that this misery people are facing is getting worse and worse,” the UNRWA commissioner-general said of his recent visit to Palestinian refugees in Syria. “I witnessed firsthand unspeakable suffering and despair.”
The desperate plight of the Syrian Palestinian refugees is mirrored in Gaza and Lebanon – where more than nine in ten live below the poverty line – and in Gaza. “Many told me that all they asked for was a dignified life, that’s not much to ask,” explained the Commissioner General.
“We have seen an increase in poverty in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon… there has been a sharp increase compared to previous assessments, which again means that we are the only lifeline for this community. The same happened in Gaza; in Gaza we have more than a million people who also depend on our food aid.”
Mr. Lazzarini emphasized the vast scope of UNRWA’s work, explaining that the agency provided services much as a small government would. “We are actually acting as Minister of Education, Minister of Primary Health Care, Minister of Municipalities, Ministry of Social Affairs for this extremely vulnerable group of Palestinian refugees,” he said.
“We also provide emergency humanitarian assistance and hence my appeal this morning for a total of $1.6 billion.”
Amid chronic funding shortfalls, UNRWA has expanded access to e-health and telemedicine and launched a digital learning platform. “In the last three years we had a ‘zero growth’ budget, which has remained at the same level,” said Mr Lazzarini.
“Of course it didn’t meet all our needs, and that forced the service to cut costs. And austerity has a price; today, for example, we regularly have up to 50 children per teacher in the classroom.”
Similar harsh conditions apply to UNRWA’s healthcare system, which provided seven million medical consultations in 2022. “On average, the doctor spent no more than three minutes with each patient, so it’s also a bit fast,” the commissioner-general said.
UNRWA’s 2023 call for $1.6 billion includes $848 million for core services including health, education, relief, social services and protection. An additional $781.6 million is needed for emergency operations in the occupied Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.