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UNRWA boss warns of financial crisis impacting services

The ongoing financial crisis at the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) could force it to halt certain services for the already poverty-stricken population of over five million people, its boss Philippe Lazzarini has warned.

The Swiss humanitarian expert, who took over UNRWA in March, told the Associated Press news agency on Wednesday that the spread of coronavirus, an economic meltdown in Lebanon and a huge deficit in UNRWA’s budget were making the situation increasingly desperate for Palestinian refugees, some of whom are trying to flee the Mediterranean nation on migrant boats.

UNRWA was established to aid the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes, as well as their descendants. It provides basic needs and services to 5.5 million refugees and families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Since the United States, its largest donor, cut off funding in 2018, UNRWA has been under significant financial strain. Washington gave $360 million (CHF327 million) to the agency in 2017, but only $60 million in 2018 and nothing in 2019 or so far this year.

Lazzarini said UNRWA is facing an estimated shortfall of about $200 million between now and the end of 2020 if the agency wants to maintain all the services in its five fields of operations, including schools, health centres and social welfare.

The organisation’s situation has been made worse by the financial difficulties most donor countries are grappling with.

Lazzarini on Wednesday discussed the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon with President Michel Aoun and outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab. Aoun called for the return of Palestinians who fled to Lebanon in recent years from Syria’s civil war.

The Swiss said he met Palestinians in refugee camps during his visit to Lebanon who spoke about their hardships amid the country’s worst economic and financial crisis in decades.

“There is a really deep sense of hopelessness and despair today in the Palestinian camps,” he declared.

The former United Nations humanitarian chief for Lebanon, took over the reins of UNRWA from another Swiss humanitarian expert – Pierre Krähenbühl – who resigned in November 2019 after accusations of mismanagement.