‘The Stability of the Middle East is at Stake’: Q&A with UNRWA’s Spokesperson on Trump’s Funding Cuts

Published January 19th, 2018 - 12:00 GMT
Christopher Gunnes, UNRWA Spokesperson (Rami Khoury/Albawaba)
Christopher Gunnes, UNRWA Spokesperson (Rami Khoury/Albawaba)

 by Salim Essaid 

In an abrupt but not surprising move, the United States cut funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) to $60 million, when they were expecting around $350 million.

This appears to be a retaliation to organizations that rejected the U.S.’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel at the U.N. in December of 2017. Trump and his administration threatened to cut billions in aid.

We pay the Palestinians hundreds of millions of dollars a year and get no appreciation or respect,” expressed the U.S. president in a tweet.

“But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?” he said.

Last week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported Trump in delegitimizing payments to UNRWA referencing this tweet.

Netanyahu said UNRWA needs to depart from this world, and that the continued support from an agency that specifically supports ongoing Palestinian refugees is a threat to the state of Israel, encouraging the possible right of return.

Many NGOs condemned the U.S.’ decision to withhold money from refugees for political gains as inhumane, and some referring to it as blackmail.

 

So what does all this mean for the future of the U.N. agency that has already declared itself underfunded since 2014 and before Trump’s quick and devestating move?

Al Bawaba spoke to UNRWA’s Spokesperson Christopher Gunness about what lies ahead for the five million refugees that depend on their services.  

 

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How much money did the U.S. cut in aid to UNRWA? 

We have heard quite simply that the United States is to give us $60 million dollars, now last year they gave us $350 million dollars and we were expecting something in the region of $350 million dollars this year so do the math. There’s a huge difference 60 and 350.

 

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Were you informed of this decision to cut aid?  

I have to confess it was a very abrupt decision, because we had made numerous phone calls to the U.S. administration. We were told repeatedly that no decision was made, no decision was made, and then we got as I said this very abrupt decision.

It’s not just abrupt, it’s regrettable, and it’s harmful because at stake is the future and the impact the services to 500 thousand children around the Middle East. We do nine million doctor consultations every year, 1.7 million people are dependant on UNRWA food and cash assistance.

In Gaza for example we have 200,000 school children who we do summer activities for. So we serve vulnerable children, the elderly, the sick, the dying, women. It’s a huge problem.”


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What actions or changes have you had to make in anticipation of this major loss in funding?

“The commissioner general is very clear that we will work tirelessly to make sure that services are not interrupted but that’s a big task because the deficit, the gap in our funding is so large that we are launching a global campaign to reach out to other donors, to reach out to non traditional donors, to reach out to Islamic charities, to reach out to foundations, and of course individuals. We’re hoping to boost the contributions we get from individual contributors quite considerably.”

 

 

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said UNRWA is supporting the grandchildren of refugees and not refugees themselves, is this true? If not, can you define for us what a refugee is?

“UNRWA has an operational definition of a refugee which is anyone who lost homes and livelihoods in 1948 and their descendants. UNHCR, the other U.N. agency also registers the children of refugees as descendants where there is an unresolved political problem, an unresolved political plight.

 

So for example, Afghan refugees in Pakistan during the 1970s and 80s and 90s. They were… if they had children born in refugee camps, their children would be registered according to principle of family unity. Similarly Cambodian refugees in Thailand during the 1970s and 80s, they had refugee camps and their children were registered.

So there’s nothing unusual or specific to UNRWA. Where there is an unresolved political plight the children of refugees are themselves refugees.”

 

 

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How do you respond to the idea that UNRWA should depart from this world as Netanyahu said ? Or even more moderately “be fundamentally re-evaluated in the way it operates and the way it is funded?”

“Now on the question of changing our mandate, dismantling UNRWA, all that sort of talk. Let’s be clear, the General Assembly sets UNRWA’s mandate and the General Assembly very recently voted robustly to renew our mandate. The General Assembly’s members have described our work as indispensable, that is the reality. It’s the general assembly which gives us our mandate.”

 

 

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If UNRWA doesn’t receive the funding it needs, what happens next? What will happen to Palestinian refugees?

“We are hoping that our services to refugees will continue uninterrupted because at stake here is nothing short of the dignity the most vulnerable and fragile people in the Middle East region. So we have to pray that the outreach campaign that we’ve begun urgently is going to yield results. As I said we’re reaching to non traditional donors, we’re looking at the BRICS countries, we’re looking to get more money out of our traditional donors, but beyond that, Islamic charities foundations and of course individuals.”

 

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Do you think that’s feasible in a short period of time?

“We refuse to be pessimistic. There’s enough pessimism around the refugees, there’s enough pessimism in the Middle East quite frankly. UNRWA is not going to start saying that we are pessimistic about getting the money. We are determined that we will fill this gap and that services to refugees will be uninterrupted.”

 

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If you could say one thing to the U.S. administration or to anyone listening who is debating funding for UNRWA, what would you say to them?  

“Look, the stability of the Middle East is at stake. If we are to see UNRWA services impacted, there will undoubtedly be a shockwave sent through the refugee community. There are over five million people registered with us. UNRWA is an organization, deeply rooted in these communities

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Most of our 30,000 staff are themselves refugees and beyond that the services as I say to over five million people. So if you start to disrupt an institution which is so imbedded in a certain community the consequences are likely to be dramatic, they are likely to be unpredictable and they are likely to be widespread and they’re likely to be profound. That’s why UNRWA needs to be properly funded, we need to be put on a sustainable efficient financial footing.”

 

 


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