UNRWA is facing a budget crisis of proportions never witnessed before, due to the withdrawal of funds from the United States.
In January 2016, the US had contributed $368 million to UNRWA, which initially made up one-third of the agency’s budget. The decision to stop providing funding created “the most severe funding crisis in the history of the agency,” according to spokesperson Chris Gunness. Over half of the population of Gaza is reportedly reliant on UNRWA’s programs, with many more in Lebanon, the West Bank, Syria and Jordan depending on the agency’s health, education, protection, emergency, and legal services.
Before delving into the negative aspects of the cuts, let’s begin with the advantages it has brought, such as the fact that UNRWA funding is not longer conditional on the basis of Western satisfaction, and thus not subordinate to certain political or diplomatic concerns. In 2017 during UNRWA, I worked with education specialists to remove any semblance of aggression, non-neutrality, and gender inequality in textbooks in Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, and Syria in order to gain approval from the United States and other Western countries who disapproved of the original textbooks of the nation. Of course this upset the local governments who believed their personal histories were being erased, that the plight that they went through and issues such as the Nakba and the occupation of various Palestinian territories were being suppressed by international agents. UNRWA is forced to negotiate between these two parties, wanting to recognize the difficult past of Palestine refugees while also ensuring an unbiased (debatable pro-Israeli) education for the students. Most of UNRWA’s actions prior to the budget cuts were highly mandated by the politics of the US. However after President Trump announced that he would cease funding UNRWA, many of the political restrictions were dropped, allowing UNRWA schools to maintain a peaceful curriculum while also teaching about their history, no longer constrained by Western agendas.
However, changes in conditions since the budget cuts have been dramatic, with mass lay-offs across UNRWA’s programs. This is especially clear in education facilities where many students are left without qualified teachers, and when children are denied an education it is harmful to the entire community. While working in Zarqa area, the difference in the cleanliness of the camps was drastic, with the traditionally cleanest areas nowru being covered in litter and grime due to need to cut back on sanitation workers in the camp. The cuts have only worsened the horrible conditions in the Palestine refugee camps, with UNRWA workers threatening to protest and add to existing anger within the camps and general Palestinian communities ever since Trump moved Israel’s capital to Jerusalem.
Most of the fields and area offices are extremely understaffed due to austerity measures and the lack of funding to train and hire new workers. In Zarqa refugee camps, there are 1,300 families, and 900-100 families in the South Amman camps, with families typically including five to nine members; however, there is only one protection caseworker assigned to each of these camps (while other camps have none), with over 25 new cases assigned to protection caseworkers each month. They receive no training on psychosocial support or protection, provided instead with only one introductory training course on case management. The protection department in UNRWA was established around 2012, dedicated to cases involving Gender Based Violence (GBV), denationalization, lack of documents, fake documents, and childhood protection, nowadays typically involving Palestinian Refugees from Syria (PRS) who fled to Jordan and neighboring Arab countries due to the civil war in Syria.
When in charge of providing necessary programs to five million refugees, with many of them living in poorly constructed houses made out of scrap material with entire families (5-9 people) sleeping in a single room, with many fathers being imprisoned, killed, or simply absent, there is simply not enough funding to provide for these refugees. Conditions have worsened greatly since the civil war began in Syria in 2014 and since the US budget cuts in 2017, however there is hope for a better future. Further, with so much energy now being used just to find funding to keep UNRWA’s programs functioning at even minimal capacity, less attention is going into creating and implementing new opportunities to assist Palestine refugees in improving their future conditions. If governments, organizations, and individuals take responsibility and make up for the failure of the United States to provide necessary support, UNRWA will be able to create a sustainable and strong future for the refugees with education opportunities and stable careers, with the goal of having them one day not be reliant on UNRWA.
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