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Trump's UNRWA funding freeze: why the most disadvantaged stand to lose

Written by Nicola Jones

Over the last five years I’ve visited eight or so Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Jordan and, whilst evaluating support for the most disadvantaged, I’ve talked to dozens of refugees. I’ve also overseen similar research in Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon. What has struck me in these conversations with children, men and women is not only the tenacity and resilience of this refugee population, but also the profound psychosocial toll that Palestinians’ now intergenerational experience of living as refugees exacts.

In recent research with women in Jordan’s Jerash refugee camp, participants emotionally explained that they faced a double invisibility. Not only do conservative social norms and tight controls on their mobility make their perspectives and needs largely invisible within their own community but globally they also lack visibility. ‘We are invisible on the world stage – we Palestinians are no longer remembered by anyone!’ This is especially the case in the context of more recent and acute refugee crises, particularly those in Syria and Yemen.

Against this backdrop, the Trump administration’s decision to freeze 50% of US funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and make future donations contingent on the return of Palestinians to peace talks is alarming. UNRWA provides essential shelter, food aid, education and health services to five million Palestine refugees – across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank. Many of these people are either formally excluded from the labour market (ex-Gazans in Jordan who lack the relevant identity papers, Palestine refugees in Lebanon) or face economies in tatters by protracted conflict (as are those in Syria, Gaza and the West Bank).

Unfortunately, coming as it does after the Palestinians’ vociferous protest against US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Ambassador Nikki Haley’s announcement appears to be about political point scoring. The move threatens to undermine the already precarious wellbeing of a highly vulnerable and marginalised cohort of refugees. Moreover, as pointed out by Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, it potentially jeopardises the stability of an already geopolitically fragile region.

UNRWA was already challenged by donor fatigue and declining budgetary resources. New and more acute refugee crises have continued to emerge and rightly demand a robust response, not just in the Middle East but also in Asia (the Rohingya) and in Africa (from northern Nigeria to the Horn of Africa). With 50% of American aid frozen (which accounted for a third of UNRWA’s overall budget) and layoffs of frontline UNRWA staff already under way, it is key that international actors recognise and respond to this funding crisis.

The decision will hurt the young

UNRWA provides schooling to more than half a million children, helping girls and boys living in refugee camps gain the knowledge and skills they will need to transition into employment and early adulthood. Education encourages young people’s civic engagement and plays an important role in protecting girls from child, early and forced marriage.

In our recent interviews with adolescent refugees in Jordan, both boys and girls talked passionately about the opportunities that being part of UNRWA’s school parliament initiative had afforded them. They were able to develop a voice and take on leadership roles not only among their peers but also within the wider camp and community environment. 

People living with disabilities are likely to be especially affected

UNRWA provides essential health services, social protection services and support to people living with disabilities and their caregivers. Refugee children with disabilities and their caregivers have complex needs. With major funding shortages looming, UNRWA’s expansion of a dedicated social worker force – in support of especially vulnerable refugee families, including those with disabilities –  could be jeopardised.

Syrian Palestinians face a double burden

The half a million Palestinian refugees who were already vulnerable in Syria before the war there began now face a double burden. They are suffering from the protracted conflict (and either internal or cross-border displacement) that is further compounded by their social and economic marginalisation. They too often lack assets and social networks that could offer vital support and protection.

It is critical that the international community speak with a united voice in urging the Trump administration to reconsider this ill-informed decision. To freeze vital aid to one of the globe’s most disadvantaged populations amid a global commitment to leave no one behind is egregious. The announcements by Belgium and Sweden that they will step in and provide much-needed funding will help mitigate short-term risks to UNRWA’s work but it is essential that the international community hold the US administration to account. We must ensure that historic funding levels are restored as soon as possible.

UNRWA must now redouble its efforts to enhance its research-based monitoring and evaluation. This will allow it to demonstrate its impact and provide convincing evidence of why sustained and stable international investments are so critical.

Together, these actions will help to restore UNRWA’s key role in supporting not only the basic needs but also the resilience of all Palestinian refugees.