JERUSALEM – Scrambling to tackle COVID-19 in camps across the Middle East, the U.N. agency supporting Palestinian refugees said on Tuesday it only has enough cash to operate until the end of May because of American funding cuts.
In 2018 President Donald Trump’s administration halted annual payments of $360 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides assistance to some 5.5 million registered refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Elizabeth Campbell, UNRWA’s director in Washington, told reporters that the loss of U.S. aid had a “corrosive impact” on the agency’s ability to help vulnerable people.
“We are basically operating on a month-to-month basis. Right now, we have funding to pay our 30,000 health care workers until the end of this month,” Campbell said in a Zoom conference call from Washington.
She said UNRWA had only secured a third of its $1.2 billion annual budget and that it was suffering its “worst financial crisis” since beginning operations some 70 years ago.
The agency is trying to plug the $800 million shortfall in part by appealing to European and Gulf countries for emergency donations, Campbell said.
Donations from the European Union, Britain, Germany, Sweden, Canada and Japan have helped fill UNRWA’s 2020 budget gap, Campbell said, while Saudi Arabia has also provided project-specific funding.
The United States was by far UNRWA’s biggest donor until it withdrew funding, calling for reforms and suggesting its services be transferred to refugee host countries.
Palestinian refugees are mostly descendants of some 700,000 Palestinians who were driven out of their homes or fled amid fighting in the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation. Nearly a third live in 58 camps where UNRWA provides services.
Many refugees fear the dwindling aid they receive could fall further as the coronavirus crisis persists and donors shift priorities.
UNRWA has tried to halt the spread of COVID-19 in and around camps, closing all its 276 schools that are attended by close to 300,000 children.
It has launched a $14 million emergency appeal for coronavirus funding, and says it will issue another, larger, aid request in the coming days.