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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

UN's Palestinian refugee agency launches $400m emergency appeal for Syria

It comes after the US slashed its contributions to the agency

Residents of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus are seen here on January 31, 2014, queuing to receive food supplies. UNRWA via AP, File
Residents of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus are seen here on January 31, 2014, queuing to receive food supplies. UNRWA via AP, File

The United Nations launched an emergency appeal on Wednesday to raise more than $400 million (Dh1.496b) for its work supporting Palestinians in Syria.

It comes after the United States slashed its annual contribution to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and said American funding could not be used for operations in Syria and Lebanon.

“By the end of March we’ll really be running out of resources,” said Mohammed Abdi Adar, the agency's head of Syria operations. “This means cash assistance, education and medical facilities.”

Mr Adar and other UN officials said the US government had not given them a reason for earmarking the funds.

“It is very unfortunate. Their needs are just as dire,” Mr Adar said of Palestinian refugees in Syria.

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US state department officials contacted by The National were unable to explain why Syria and Lebanon had been excluded from the funds sent.

The UN relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) runs schools and clinics for 5.3 million Palestinians across the Middle East. In addition to Syria and Lebanon, it provides services in Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank.

Last year, the US provided $364.3m to UNRWA, a similar figure to that donated in 2016 and 2015. But earlier this month, president Donald Trump's administration sent $60m, saying it had frozen an additional $65m for “future consideration”.

UNRWA says it needs $409m this year to cover cash assistance, education and health services for the 438,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Syria, who have been severely impacted by the nearly seven years of war there.

In Syria's largest Palestinian refugee “camp”, the Yarmouk neighbourhood of Damascus, 150,000 of the 160,000 registered refugees who lived there at the beginning of the conflict have been displaced.

In all, 254,000 Palestinian refugees have been displaced inside the country, and another 120,000 have left Syria altogether.

“Before the war, very few of them required cash assistance,” Mr Adar said. “Today it is 95 per cent.”

The appeal launched on Wednesday also covers services for about 50,000 Palestinian refugees who were previously registered in Syria and now live in Lebanon and Jordan.

UNRWA’s budget often faces annual shortfalls. Last year, the agency launched an emergency appeal for $329m to support its Syria operations but only received $141m — 60 per cent of which was provided by the US. This year it has also said it will abstain from funding emergency appeals, at least for the time being.

On Tuesday in Geneva, UNRWA head Pierre Kraehenbuehl said 11 countries had agreed to send contributions early this year to help temporarily make up the gap in funds.

Seven countries — Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Russia — had already advanced funds while four others — Belgium, Kuwait, the Netherlands and Ireland — had pledged to do so soon, he said.

Mr Kraehenbuehl suggested the US cuts were linked to a UN general assembly vote earlier this month that rejected Washington's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital — a move that broke with decades of US policy.

"And I simply note here again that humanitarian funding should be preserved from being tied up with political considerations," Mr Kraehenbuehl said.