UN Palestinian agency needs urgent funds by summer, chief says


Rome (AFP)

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees has until the summer to secure new funding after only managing to partially cover a near-half-a-billion shortfall at a summit in Rome, the organisation's head said Thursday.

Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Pierre Krahenbuhl said that the body, which came to the meeting looking for $446 million (361 million euros) after major donor Washington slashed its 2018 funding, received pledges amounting to $100 million.

"It's a first step towards closing the entire shortfall," said Krahenbuhl. "There is an absolute imperative to mobilise the rest of the money.

"We can't go back to our students and say 'this was one step and let's leave it at that'."

Krahenbuhl said the new funds came from Qatar, Switzerland, Turkey, New Zealand, Norway, Mexico and India, with an unspecified additional contribution from France pushing the donations "close to the $100 million mark."

The 52-year-old also said that other countries which had not pledged money on Thursday had promised to work towards giving more in the future.

- US won't budge -

But he said there had been no movement from the US, which has cut the $360 million offered in 2017 to a commitment of just $60 million this year.

That leaves UNRWA scrambling for the $346 million it needs to guarantee services until the end of the year.

Krahenbuhl said the funding raised on Thursday would tide the agency for another few months.

"It will take us into the summer," he said.

UNRWA was established after the war surrounding Israel's creation in 1948, when around 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled.

The agency offers vital support for these refugees and their descendants in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, claiming to reach more than five million people.

It employs more than 30,000 people, most of them Palestinians, and relies on the United States for around 30 percent of its funding.

But with the administration of US President Donald Trump drastically cutting its contribution, the jobs and the frontline services it provides are at risk of closure.

The US has frozen two planned payments worth more than $100 million -- one for UNRWA's central budget and one for food aid.

- 'Critical services at risk' -

The American decision to cut funding came after a Palestinian boycott of Trump's administration sparked by his December recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, with the president pushing them to end that boycott.

On Thursday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that without an injection of funds, "critical services could be reduced or eliminated entirely."

Among the services likely to be affected are around 700 schools in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere in the region that provide education to over 500,000 students, Guterres said.

It will also affect sanitation, medicine, microfinance and food security for 1.7 million refugees "in abject poverty" or affected by conflict.

"This would have severe impacts -- a cascade of problems that could push the suffering in disastrous and unpredictable directions," he said.