UNRWA is facing unprecedented crisis and may reduce assistance in Lebanon

By Carolina Montenegro*, in Beirut

The UNRWA (UN agency assisting Palestinian refugees) is likely to have to reduce operations in Lebanon in 2010, if there is no increase in the financial contribution by donors to the institution by the end of this year.

“We may have to reduce services if we can’t raise the US$39 million missing to meet with our activities until the end of 2009”, says Hoda El-Turk, spokeswoman for UNRWA in Lebanon. The agency has budget of US$70 million to serve 400,000 refugees in the country this year.

For 60 years, UNRWA has been the biggest UN agency, in number of employees. With headquarters in Gaza, in the West Bank, and Amman, in Jordan, the organization provides social services of health and education to Palestinian refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank and employs approximately 25,000 people (80% of them are Palestinian refugees).

“We’ve already felt the effects of the world financial crisis, there was a reduction in donations this year. But if we have to reduce costs in 2010, we will first cut out the purchase of equipment and staff expenses, before reducing investment in social projects”, says Hoda.

According to her, the amount disbursed by major donors (the United States and the European Union) has not kept up with population growth in Palestinian refugee camps. “In 60 years of existence, the focus of UNRWA’s work went from humanitarian aid to development. Today, I can assess that with this change, we made more projects, but cut services provided”, she explains.

Daily food was distributed to all refugees in the early activities of UNRWA and today they are restricted to the poorest families who cannot afford their own (“refugees families in special hardship”). These groups also receive financial aid and housing.

“However, refugees who do not fit in this category are currently treated in other ways, provide access to micro-credit for business and loans to purchase real estate,” said Hoda.

Under-employment in Lebanon
In Lebanon, the agency faces big challenges due to the local labor laws prohibiting Palestinian refugees to work in dozens of professions, because of a reciprocity concept. “Brazilian dentists may work in Lebanon because Lebaneses can be dentists in Brazil, but that doesn’t apply to Palestinians, who don’t have their own state”, said Hoda.

The situation of life in refugee camps in the country today is regarded as the most precarious in the region, according to international NGO, protector of human rights, Human Rights Watch. “Extreme poverty and under-employment prevail”, warned this week the institution’s senior analyst for Lebanon and Syria, Nadim Houry.

According to Hoda, although UNRWA has training centers (with sewing and secretarial lessons) and offers market placement services, the employment situation in Lebanon is particularly hard. Most of the refugees take up temporary work in crops and buildings.

To try and reverse the situation, the UN agency has worked in partnership with the Lebanese government, the ILO (International Labor Organization) and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). In 2007, they created the FCEP (Committee for Employability of Palestine Refugees in Lebanon), aiming to map the employment situation in the refugee camps of the country and point solutions.

“A new alternative emerged in the last two years, is the labor market of the countries in the Gulf region, mainly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They need qualified labor and we provide services for job placement of graduates. We deal with the employer”, said Hoda.

Until a few years ago, it wasn’t possible because of a conflict of political interest in the region. Since the former Palestinian leader Iasser Arafat supported the Iraqi invasion in Kuwait, in 1990, the Gulf countries began to hostilize the entry of Palestinian employees or refugees.

* Refugees United Special Reporter

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