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UNRWA will ‘come to a halt’ in March, warns agency director in Lebanon

UNRWA will ‘come to a halt’ in March, warns agency director in Lebanon

Dorothee Klaus: The agency will no longer have no funding as of the end of February. So that means our operations would come to a halt during March. This has an impact on the 250,000 Palestine refugees that we estimate currently residing in Lebanon and that are to the largest extent dependent on the services. We currently have 40,000 children in our schools and vocational training centres.

They have no other place to go. So that means 38,000 children, grades one to 12 would be unable to continue their schooling.

The Lebanese host Government has made it very clear that they do not have the logistical, financial and political resources to take over Palestine refugees. They’re struggling with a severe economic crisis affecting their own public budget, with a lot of Lebanese children moving from private schools into the public schools.

Thus, they are already overcrowded, and the afternoon shifts are occupied by the Syrian refugees in the country. So, there is no perspective there.

We have 200,000 Palestine refugees that visit our health centres on an annual basis. They’re provided with basic medication. This is a first responder to children that need to be immunized, to pregnant and lactating women and to the many patients with non-communicable and chronic diseases that are supplied with vital medicines.

They have no place to go. The public sector is not open to Palestine refugees and due to the very high poverty rates – 80 per cent of Palestine refugees in Lebanon lives below the poverty line – they’re unable to afford private sector services.

That’s even more so affects the 50,000 Palestine refugees relying on UNRWA’s hospital referrals. UNWRA has a cost-sharing agreement with Palestine refugees, where we pay around 50 to 60 per cent, sometimes more of the expenses.

Given very high poverty rates, hospitalization would most likely have to be deferred by Palestine refugees because they’re unable to cover the costs, and this also includes 600 cancer patients which rely on UNWRA co-funding. We’ve seen an increase in the mortality among cancer patients unable to afford vital medication. We’ve taken a decision last year to increase the co-funding proportion of UNWRA for that matter.

All of that would fall away. We also are providing environmental health services, the garbage collection and the Palestine refugee camps, where over 100,000 of the Palestine refugees are currently residing. There is nobody capable to take over these services.

Lastly, we also provide cash assistance to 65 per cent of Palestine refugees, which has enabled us to bring down poverty from a staggering 93 per cent to currently 80 per cent.

So, all of this would have severe impact on the Palestine refugees here and Lebanon.

There is no other actor that has the resources and is capable to step in, given that operates like government services for which it now has the respective infrastructure. We’re running these services with around 3,500 employees, which also contribute to the incomes of an estimated 10 to 15 per cent of the Palestine refugee population that is relying directly on the investments that UNRWA makes in Lebanon, which amount to, on average, about $180 million every year.

UN News: Can you tell us more about how UNWRA is dealing with this changing situation?

Dorothee Klaus: We have maintained all our core services over the past five months without interruption, given the escalations on the southern border of Lebanon. We have enacted a contingency plan. We have prepared 12 of our schools to potentially host displaced persons that have no other place to go. We have made provisions in terms of pre-positioning food and medical supplies.

We’ve also provided our chronic patients with two months of supplies in advance.

We’ve establishe operational centres across the country to be able to continue providing services under all circumstances. These were parallel interventions that we’ve followed over the past months, but otherwise, we have continued with all of our operations without interruption.

UN News: What are the most compelling needs right now to keep the operations running in Lebanon?

Dorothee Klaus: UNRWA’s services already supply the most essential and the very basic services, and this is what we’re constantly hearing from the refugees who would like us to do much more.

Any reflections on what would be more essential than something else would put us into very, very difficult decision making. The questions would be: Do we keep the children in school or do we have 600 cancer patients potentially dying? 

Do we close health centres that immunize newborn babies? Do we not collect the garbage?

All of this is indispensable.

UN News: We know that there was a situation over five months ago, when violence erupted in the Ein El Helwa refugee camp, which displaced many and impacted UNRWA’s work in the camp. Are you capable now of operating fully in the camp?

Dorothee Klaus: Between July and September, we had violent clashes in the camp. We have two school compounds with eight schools. They were occupied by the militants. Four schools have sustained very severe damages and continue being occupied.

UNWRA has gone public and said these schools are now out of our control. We have, until 1 February, educated 6,000 children normally going to schools inside the camp [in facilities] outside the camp.

But, we’re able to refurbish three of the affected schools, so we’ve regained control. We’ve cleared them from unexploded ordinances and remnants of war.

Part of the children are returning, and we’re still negotiating opening of an additional school.

But, four schools remain outside of our control, and we also do not have the funds to repair them.

So, about half of the school children continue going to school outside the camp now.


The UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNWRA) serves almost six million Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. 

UN News’s Khaled Mohamed spoke with Dorothee Klaus, who’s the top official for the agency in Lebanon, which is home to around 250,000 Palestinians.

Explaining the dire, immediate impact of funding cuts and the current suspension of aid by many key donors, she said UNRWA operations could ‘come to a halt’ in March.

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Khaled Mohamed
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UN News