UN faces ‘most extreme’ pressure ever on Palestinian aid

Palestinian refugees queue for UNRWA food aid in Yarmouk camp, Syria. [ONU Brasil/Flickr]

EXCLUSIVE / A perfect storm of funding shortages, water crises and regional blowback from Syria has put the UN’s humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees under the most extreme pressure it has ever faced, says the new commissioner-general of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the near east (UNRWA).

Pierre Krähenbühl was in Brussels for high-level meetings to try to prevent what he called “alarming and concrete shortfalls” in UNRWA’s food aid budget from turning into a full-blown crisis involving rationing or food cuts on the Gaza Strip before the end of the year.

“We need between $25-30 million (up to €22 million) to ensure that we can purchase the next round of food as we need a certain amount of time to bring the food into the Strip,” Krähenbühl told EURACTIV in UNRWA’s Brussels office. “Funding shortfalls of this range could mean that by September we have difficulties in purchasing it and that would be felt towards the end of this year.”

“If that happens, we would either have to reduce beneficiaries or introduce rations,” he added. “There is no miracle cure.”

On 4 June, the EU agreed to give UNRWA €246 million for the 2014-2016 period, but that did not fill a €69 million hole in the UN body’s core budget, caused by attempts to juggle its mandate from the UN General Assembly with the funds available.

Only 30% of an emergency $300 million (€220 million) appeal for the occupied Palestinian territories has been received, and just 24% of the $417 million (€305 million) pledged for the Syria Humanitarian response plan.

“One should not take for granted UNRWA’s ability to deliver services when the needs of refugees are constantly increasing in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, particularly because of the regional implications of Syria” Krähenbühl said.

“We are not in a business-as-usual situation at all,” he continued. “This is probably the most extreme set of cumulative circumstances that UNRWA has ever had to deal with and that really has to be understood by policy-makers.”

The Palestinian refugee problem was unsustainable and ignored by the West at its own peril, in Krähenbühl’s view, because “it always ends up coming back to centre stage of attention, so we should act now before it becomes more extreme.”

The gravest risk he foresaw was a failure to understand the regional dynamics created by the displacement of Syria’s Palestinian refugees to places including the occupied territories. In Syria itself, the crisis is already self-evident.

Syrian Blockade

An on-off blockade of the war-ravaged Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus resumed last week, because of an already-completed election, Syrian authorities said.

During previous aid closures, 128 refugees died of malnutrition and camp residents had to eat cats, dogs and inedible plants in order to survive, according to one Amnesty International report.

“It is positive that we’ve been able to bring in more aid since January but at the same time, it is about 25% of what is needed for the population in food terms,” Krähenbühl told EURACTIV. “More has to be done to facilitate access. We have had a modest but positive achievement with the distribution of hygiene kits but clearly the medical assistance has not yet moved and this is needed.”

Over half of the 545,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria have been displaced by the conflict, many moving across the borders to Jordan and Lebanon, with some even arriving in Gaza.

“The Syrian disaster has significant implications for future regional stability,” Krähenbühl said. “The depth of the loss, despair and fear that you feel Syria’s Palestinian refugee community is, in a way, echoed and deeply connects with the sense of despair, hopelessness and alienation among Palestinian refugee populations in Gaza and the West Bank because of the lack of prospects for a solution to their situation which is extremely precarious.”

Gaza’s water crisis

In Gaza, 60% of the population depend on UNRWA food aid, nearly half are unemployed and travel outside of its 41km by 12km borders is all but impossible for most of the 1.6 million mostly-refugees who live there due to a blockade which Israel imposed, citing security concerns.

In 2013, the UN body needed $238 million (€174 million) in 2013 to deal with the effects of its collapsed economy, but even this sum could be eclipsed if a collapse in local water supplies occurs. UN reports say this could begin in 2016 and become irreversible by 2020.

About 90% of water from Gaza’s coastal aquifer is already contaminated by nitrates or chloride and unsafe to drink. Average water consumption is well below the World Health Organisation’s minimum health limit, and a third of the population receive running water for just six to eight hours a day.  

“We are only a few years away from the Gaza aquifer being totally unusable as it is over used and so deeply contaminated by seawater that it has become undrinkable,” Krähenbühl said.

“The critical moment is not far away and [it requires] easing the illegal blockade to bring in materials to improve water and sanitation, and experts on the ground to address one of most critical parameters for viability of life on the Strip,” he said.

UNRWA was created in 1949 to provide assistance to around 750,000 Palestinian refugees left scattered in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and other countries, after Israel’s ‘War of Independence’, which Palestinians call the ‘Nakba’ (catastrophe).

As the descendant population of the original refugees rose, UNRWA found itself providing assistance to some five million registered refugees often living in decrepit conditions and lacking basic rights. By dint of their locations and vulnerability, the Palestinian refugee population has been prone to being drawn into civil wars and regional intrigues.  

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