5th Mar 2024


Gaza Abyss: supporting UNRWA is humanitarian imperative

  • The UN Relief & Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees compound in Gaza (Photo: UNRWA)
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Devastating human loss, mass displacement, chaos, fear. Gaza had suffered many crises, but this one is unprecedented.

Two million people are on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, with hundreds of thousands sheltering in schools and other buildings that belong to UNRWA, the UN Agency for Palestine Refugees. As I write, we are running out of food, drinking water, mattresses, blankets and hygiene items.

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  • Inside the UN compound (Photo: UNRWA)

UNRWA is the United Nations agency mandated by the international community to provide vital services to millions of Palestine Refugees across its five fields of operations in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank — including East Jerusalem — Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The agency runs schools, health centers and a social protection programme, among others.

In Gaza, in a population of over two million people, four-in-five live in poverty, with youth unemployment among the highest in the world.

UNRWA is, for most, the main humanitarian actor, a provider of education, primary healthcare and emergency food assistance to some 1.4 million people. Before the escalation, more than half of the population relied on the agency to make ends meet and fulfil their basic rights, including education.

Since 7 October, UNRWA has sheltered hundreds of thousands of displaced people in its schools and other buildings,. With a fast depleted stock of clean water, food, fuel and other basic items, UNRWA declared this week that it can no longer assist those in need. And while the military operations and air bombing continue, UNRWA shelters are no longer safe, nor have the capacity to shelter more people.

So far, the agency has lost at least 14 staff, and sustained damage to over 23 of its buildings, including schools and health facilities.

UNRWA has expressed unequivocal condemnation of last week's attack on Israel. However, its firm position is that the response to killing cannot be more killing. The agency is outraged by the continuing increase in civilian casualties and the scale of destruction in Gaza.

The rules of war must be respected and civilians, hospitals, schools, clinics, humanitarian workers and United Nations premises cannot be a target. They must be protected at all times. Humanitarian access must be granted immediately and unconditionally.

Years of underfunding and austerity have weakened UNRWA and its ability to adequately respond to the immense needs of Palestine refugees, one of the most vulnerable communities in the region and beyond.

Yet, the global community continues to almost universally acknowledge the centrality of the agency in the lives of the refugees, directly contributing to their basic human rights, and directly contributing to regional stability.

Last month, the International Crisis Group warned that the agency's collapse would deprive millions of Palestine refugees of health services, education, and food aid, and could translate into instability across the region. UNRWA's chronic underfunding has significantly weakened the agency and its ability to respond to a crisis of this magnitude.

The agency's humanitarian response depends on its ability to continue to work. With an anticipated shortfall of over $100m [€94.85m] to its core budget, UNRWA faces a Herculean challenge: how can it play a lifesaving role if it might not be able to pay staff salaries as of next month?

To be able to respond to the current unprecedented conflict in Gaza, UNRWA launched an emergency appeal for $104m to help at least half a million people for three months. As the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate rapidly, the needs exponentially increase.

For decades, the EU and its member states have been supporting the vital services provided by UNRWA, recognising its role in the human development of generations of Palestine refugees and for the promotion of stability in the region. T

Today (Tuesday), as both EU leaders of the European Council and MEPs convene, we appeal for Europe to continue supporting the vital work of UNRWA.

Failure to provide adequate and immediate financial assistance to UNRWA would inevitably lead to a humanitarian crisis beyond the Gaza Strip.

Fear, distress, uncertainty and despair should not be the norm. At a time when Gaza is confronted to its biggest crisis and millions look at the agency for their survival, supporting Palestine Refugees through UNRWA is a humanitarian imperative.

Author bio

Marta Lorenzo is the director of the UNRWA (United Nations Relief & Works Agency for Palestine) Representative Office for Europe.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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