Palestinian Refugee Agency Running Out Of Money

The United Nations agency that provides basic health care and education to Palestinian refugees doesn’t have enough money to pay local salaries this month.

The shortfall could directly affect 30,000 teachers, doctors and social workers, as well as the people using their services in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

Filling Basic Needs

Sit for an hour in the United Nations Relief and Works Agency office in the al-Amari camp for Palestinian refugees, and you get a sense of what people expect the agency to provide.

An old woman asks where she can pick up food basics next month. An aunt wants to get her grown nephew his own refugee card. An unemployed carpenter, Mehedin Sheik Kassam, wants help finding work.

“I am 55 years old,” Kassam says. “I have lived in this camp all my life. The UN is supposed to support all aspects of our life: health, economy, education.”

The agency’s general fund pays for health clinics and schools for some 5 million Palestinian refugees across the Mideast. The budget shortfall would affect salaries of the people who work in those places.

Year-End Budget Gap

Agency director Filippo Grandi says a cash crunch is normal toward the end of the year.

“In past years, toward the end of the year, governments usually have some spare money, unspent money,” Grandi says. “But this year, especially with Syria draining a lot of … humanitarian resources, it has become difficult for governments to help us.”

For the past two years, first Britain then the European Union let the agency borrow against future contributions to cover a year-end gap.

But that doesn’t make sense to Guy Lawson, U.S. regional coordinator for Palestinian refugees. The United States is the agency’s single biggest donor country.

“We try to provide our contributions very early in year, and we try to do it in a way that allows them to plan and program effectively,” Lawson says. “If we use our 2014 contributions to meet 2013 needs, then the needs will just become greater in 2014.”

Adding pressure right now in the West Bank and Gaza is a union request for salary increases for local UN employees — all refugees themselves.

“The UN is responsible for me and my children,” says Mohammad Katami, who has worked for the agency for 22 years. “We have to think about the people who provide refugee services. I need to be paid to keep the whole system healthy.”

Local UN workers have gone on strike over pay disputes in the past. There have also been protests when the UN has cut or limited programs.

Some Palestinian refugees have built lives outside the camps. In a family compound not far from the Qalandiya camp, young cousins race across a mosaic-tiled courtyard. Their fathers’ family left Qalandiya 35 years ago and became successful contractors.

They are still eligible for UN schools and clinics. Amal Abu Isba, who married in to the family, says they used to get food like sardines, flour and oil from the UN. She wishes they still did.

“Even though I don’t need the food supplies, I still feel it is my right, because they used to give it to me, and I am still a refugee,” Isba says.

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Is At The Heart Of The Problem

Major donors say they want the agency to be more efficient and take a hard look at what it really can provide, as the number of registered Palestinian refugees continues to grow.

Grandi says he tells donors the only real solution is to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I’m telling them, if you want to stop this bleeding of money to a very old problem, the answer is not to stop that funding,” he says. “The answer is to solve the problem where it needs to be solved — which is in the political sphere.”

If the UN cannot meet payroll by payday, the third week in December, Grandi isn’t sure what will happen. Maybe, he says, staff will work without pay. At least until January, when next year’s donations are in.

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