Should we keep a school open, or not; should the health centre shut its doors, or not. These are just some of the questions the dedicated staff members of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) have to answer on a daily basis as they carry out their work in embattled Syria.
The Middle Eastern country is host to some half a million Palestinian refugees, who have lived there for decades after fleeing their homes in the aftermath of the 1948 war. It is estimated that all of them are now directly caught up in the conflict that has raged in the country for more than two years.
Prior to March 2011, when the uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad began, Palestinian refugees were already among the poorest communities in Syria, with 27 per cent of the population estimated to be living below the poverty line – $2 per day – and over 12 per cent unable to meet their basic food needs.
“Before the crisis, we were providing social protection to Palestinian refugees classified as poor,” said an UNRWA staffer who works on relief and social services issues in Syria. “We were providing subsidies and relief assistance to poor refugees and we were leading development initiatives aiming at reducing poverty and addressing the problems of vulnerable groups,” she said in a recent interview with the UN News Centre.
The conflict has affected humanitarian access and disrupted education and health services, exacerbating stress and uncertainty in refugee communities, according to UNRWA, which has provided basic services, and at times emergency assistance, to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza for over 63 years.
In Syria, the Agency has reported that increasing numbers of Palestinian refugees are being killed, injured or displaced amid the intensifying violence in the country, where more than 70,000 civilians have already lost their lives since the conflict began.
In early March, five Palestinian children were among the casualties when they were caught by incoming gunfire and shelling. The previous month, 12 Palestinian refugees were killed by heavy weaponry in the Damascus suburb of Yarmouk; five of them were members of the same family.
UNRWA has cautioned that the Palestinian refugees are unable to move around safely and face severe restrictions owing to escalating threats from shelling and armed clashes, exacerbating vulnerabilities that existed prior to the Syrian conflict.
From development assistance to emergency aid
The conflict has changed the way UNRWA staff work, particularly as the Agency’s tasks have evolved from providing regular services – ranging from education to health needs – to delivering emergency assistance such as distributing cash, food and medical supplies.
Amid the escalating conflict and numerous operational challenges, UNRWA has been working to keep schools, clinics and food distribution centres open. Its 3,600 staff inside Syria, who live and work among refugee communities, are equally affected by the conflict. Struggling to meet the critical needs of those they serve, they do so often under circumstances of significant personal risk, including kidnappings, disappearances and car-jackings.
The way UNRWA staff work has “completely changed,” said a staffer from Homs. “We shifted immediately to emergency response.” She recalled that before the conflict, staff would begin the day by carrying out the Agency’s regular services.
Currently, however, one of the most important tasks is to ensure the safety of staff, which means starting the day by reviewing the security situation, advising staff on their movements and on whether to stay indoors or to come to their offices.
“The biggest challenge is that we don’t have communications in Homs – mobiles, Internet, landlines – so this is an example of how our life has changed,” she stated.
The conflict has led the Agency to explore new and more creative ways to distribute its assistance. For example, UNRWA provides some refugees with ATM cards to enable them to go and withdraw their assistance from private banks in safer areas, when it becomes too dangerous to go to one of the Agency’s offices.
Staff members also send refugees text messages informing them of the timing and locations of ATM card and food distributions, and cooperate with other partners such as the World Food Programme (WFP) to deliver food assistance in areas experiencing armed violence.
The Agency operates in an increasingly challenging environment, in which staff face threats on a daily basis. Communications are regularly constrained by Internet and phone outages, further adding to the operational challenges. Inter-city mobile phone connections as well as international landlines are also down sometimes.
Education in particular has been disrupted since most UNRWA schools have been deemed unsafe because they are in areas that are too dangerous, have been damaged in the fighting or are accommodating internally displaced persons (IDPs).
There are some 8,400 IDPs sheltering in 21 UNRWA-managed facilities in Syria, as of 29 May, of which 87 per cent are Palestinian refugees. The Agency reported that increasing numbers of refugees are seeking shelter at UNRWA facilities and refugee camps in Hama, Homs, Aleppo city and Latakia.
Meanwhile, 10 out of 23 health centres were closed last week, including eight in Damascus. Several health centres are compelled to reduce their hours of operation due to inaccessibility for staff and patients alike.
Constrained by funding shortage
The efforts of UNRWA staff have also been constrained by a shortage of funds, which have not kept pace with the needs of the refugees which have grown exponentially over the course of the conflict.
“They need more and we are not able to meet their minimum needs,” said another staffer from Damascus. “We are working all the time, and I’m sure that the concerned are working seriously on fundraising and meeting refugees’ needs, but there are half a million refugees in need for help and our resources are very limited.”
Addressing a humanitarian forum in February, UNRWA Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi highlighted the vulnerability of the Palestinian community in Syria and called on all donors to honour the pledges they made to assist the Agency.
Of the $1.5 billion UN-wide humanitarian appeal for Syria issued in January, $90 million was for UNRWA’s relief efforts over the first six months of the year. To date, the Agency – which is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN Member States – has received some $78 million.
Another key problem is that, unlike Syrian nationals, the Palestinian refugees are limited in their options to flee the country owing to their status. The UN estimates that over 1.5 million people have fled the escalating violence in Syria and taken refuge in neighbouring countries. According to UNRWA, this includes some 63,200 Palestinian refugees who have fled to Lebanon and Jordan. Thousands more have fled to Turkey and Iraq.
“It’s not easy for the Palestinian refugees to flee,” said one staffer. “There are movement restrictions with regard to Palestinian movement [outside the country]. The only open border, for the time being, is Lebanon.