UNRWA facing 'existential threat', agency chief Lazzarini warns UN Security Council

UNRWA facing 'existential threat', agency chief Lazzarini warns UN Security Council
UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said the agency has suffered a 'chronic underfunding' of its programme budget for the past decade.
3 min read
26 August, 2022
UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been 'deprioritised' [Binnur Ege Gurun Kocak/Anadolu Agency/Getty-archive]

UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA has no financial reserve and is facing an "existential threat", the organisation's leader warned the United Nations Security Council on Thursday.

Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini in his address said the agency has experienced a "chronic underfunding" of its programme budget for the past decade, making it difficult to satisfy its mandate from the UN General Assembly.

He said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been "deprioritised" by changes to "geopolitical priorities" and "regional dynamics", according to UNRWA's website, adding that the agency was under attack by "malicious" campaigns.

"Coordinated campaigns to delegitimise UNRWA with a view to erode the rights of Palestine refugees are increasing in frequency and maliciousness," Lazzarini said.

The UNRWA chief, who holds Swiss and Italian nationality, said his organisation has seen "more than once" how shifts in domestic politics can "suspend support overnight".

"Consequently, and despite immense outreach efforts, funding has stagnated over the last decade, forcing us to operate with a shortfall of around US$ 100 million year after year," Lazzarini said.

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He explained that until last year, this funding gulf was dealt with through austerity, cost control and carrying over big liabilities between years.

"But today, we have no financial reserve. We have reached the limit of austerity and cost-control measures," said Lazzarini.

"Today, UNRWA is facing an existential threat."

More than 80 percent of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and the besieged Gaza Strip live in poverty, according to Lazzarini.

Palestinian refugees "understand that the support of the international community to their plight is fading" when they see UNRWA "delaying salaries, decreasing the quality of the services and unable to respond to increasing needs", Lazzarini said.

"Despair and a sense of abandonment are growing in the refugee camps," he added, saying despair threatens mental wellbeing, and peace and stability.

The UNRWA chief said it's "hard to believe the lack of sufficient resources" stems only from financial limitations.

He listed three "sources of intense pressure" for the agency.

These include the General Assembly's commitment to upholding Palestinian refugees' rights and "its instruction to UNRWA to deliver a number of public-like services until a just and lasting solution".

The insufficient funding and unpredictability of most funding were another issue, as was opposition to any perceived changes to the way services are provided.

"Any such change is seen as an attempt to encroach on the rights of the refugees," Lazzarini said.

He explained hosts and refugees worry this may "weaken" UNRWA and eventually lead to it being completely dismantled.

"Failing to reconcile these demands will make the UN General Assembly Mandate more and more impossible to implement," Lazzarini warned.