Facing 'tipping point,' UNRWA chief seeks Gulf state support
The head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees has called on rich Gulf countries to chip in more to help educate, house and provide health care for them. He suggested some of those countries don't put their money where their mouths are when they voice support for the beleaguered refugees.
Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, made a pitch to diplomats from key donor states to help fund its new $1.6 billion budget request this year — money which will first have to go to mop up a multimillion-dollar deficit.
"For the fourth consecutive year, we are ending (2022) with a large deficit of about $70 million," he told reporters, lamenting that the agency has no more reliability and predictability of funding.
Lazzarini voiced concerns about increased tension, volatility, uncertainty and violence in the region "at a time the agency is struggling to keep afloat its own activities."
He warned that if the UNRWA doesn't receive adequate funding, "we might at one point reach a tipping point" and face a suspension of its activities in "such a volatile region" and "where people are so desperate."
The UNRWA was founded in the wake of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 to serve hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes. Today, their numbers have grown to some 5.9 million people, most in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and neighboring countries in the Middle East. The agency provides social services, education and jobs to many.
Israel has objected to UNRWA's school curriculum, claiming it promotes anti-Israel incitement, and has called for reforms in the organization. But it tolerates the agency, in part because it provides services that Israeli authorities don't or won't provide.
Lazzarini said some traditional big donor countries — he cited Britain by name — recently decreased their overseas aid budgets, which "has severely impacted the organization." He said the war in Ukraine had also diverted public attention away from the needs in the Middle East.
He reserved his biggest appeal for well-heeled Gulf states, which saw a windfall last year with soaring energy prices and high demand for oil and gas after key producer Russia invaded Ukraine. He said he couldn't explain why their funding for UNRWA had fallen in recent years.
"I do not have the response, but I have observed a few trends in the region. The first one? Indeed, the Arab contribution in 2018 represented about 25% of the overall contribution to the agency," he said. "In 2021, it was less than 3%, and last year it was 4%."
Lazzarini credited some of that support to Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
But some Gulf states decreased "their engagement" with UNRWA even as they continued to sympathize with "the plight of the Palestinian refugees" with statements of political support for Palestinians in U.N. bodies. That support hasn't "necessarily been translated into contribution to UNRWA" in recent years, he said.
"I'm really engaged with the member states of the region, and I really hope that they will come back as a strategic partner," Lazzarini said.
Lazzarini noted a "new political dynamic" in the region, at a time when Israel has struck a series of diplomatic agreements with Arab countries, including the Gulf nations Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, known as the Abraham Accords.
"There should be absolutely no contradiction by being part of the Abraham Accords, having a rapprochement, and to continue to support the agency and Palestinian refugees," Lazzarini said.
In 2018, under former President Donald Trump, the United States, traditionally one of UNRWA's largest donors, suspended its support for the agency. The Biden administration has resumed funding and last year pitched in $340 million, making the U.S. the biggest donor.