UN financial crises puts Palestinians out of school

More than 450,000 Palestinian children to not find their schools open in fall due to UN financial crisis

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

Palestinians demonstrate outside the UNRWA Gaza Headquarters against cuts and the possibility of delaying the school year, Monday, Aug. 10, 2015.

Updated Aug 15, 2015

The UNRWA, branch of UN in charge of providing humanitarian aid and state-like services to millions of Palestinian refugees scattered across the region, warned that the "financial crisis" looked set to "force the suspension of services relating to the agency's education program," as stated in a report to the UN’s Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

"At a time of growing instability and rising extremism, there's going to be an extra half million kids on the streets of the Middle East," Chris Gunness, a spokesperson for the agency, told VICE News.

"Radical groups are in full recruitment mode… these children should be in UN schools," Gunness added.

The UNRWA has issued an urgent appeal to donors, including the United States, Australia, and the Gulf countries, in a bid to recover from the present financial crisis of $101 million in its education budget.

However, only nine days are left until the start of the school year and in many places the funding pot is still short.

"It's one of the biggest crises we've ever faced... We're cut back to the bone, there's little to nothing left we can cut now. The cupboard is absolutely bare, there's nothing left, our financial resources are completely depleted," said Gunness. "We cannot continue to be mandated to do things and not be provided with the funding to do them."

The UNRWA has already implemented across the board strict measures, including a freeze on staff travel and wages, and reducing the number of international contractors on the payroll by 85 percent.

In a bid to save more money, class sizes were increased even though they were already running high at 38 children per teacher and many had the "double-shift" programme — two consecutive school shifts, morning and evening, being taught in one building on the same day.

On Wednesday in a bid to reduce the crisis, Saudi Arabia donated $35 million, of which $19 million will go directly into the education budget deficit.

The organisation depends on donor contributions, which it says have not kept pace with the huge increase in demands on its services.

If schools don't open on Aug. 24, not only will the children be affected but also around 22,000 local staff employed in its schools across the region will suffer, since it is one of the largest employers in many of the Palestinian refugee communities. In Gaza, where unemployment stands at 43 percent which is the highest in the world, the UNRWA is the second-largest provider of jobs after the public sector.

Protests in Gaza, where approximately 22,500 children depend on UN schools, took place outside the agency's buildings on a weekly basis after news of the likely closure sparked anger in Palestinian communities which view the financial crisis as UNRWA’s failure to the Palestinian people.

BADIL, a West Bank-based NGO fighting for refugee rights, stated that the financial downfall revealed "a fundamentally flawed and — ultimately — entirely unsustainable approach" to the UN's protection of the displaced Palestinians.

On Tuesday Ahmad Assaf, the spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority's ruling party Fatah, called on international donors to act now and donate or risk "refugees being drawn into extremist terror organizations."

Employees of the UNRWA in Jordan have staged sit-ins outside the agency's headquarters in Amman, whose country hosts the largest population of displaced Palestinians in the world as well as more than 618,000 Syrian refugees and states that it is unable to cope with the burden of providing health, social and humanitarian services to the ever-growing population.  

"There's a lot of frustration being directed at us," one of the UNRWA's workers, who refused to be named, told VICE News outside a UN complex in Gaza City.

"It's understandable, for Palestinian people education is about dignity and [the] opportunity for a better life… but if schools don't open it's going to become difficult to work here… thousands of children are going to be stuck at home missing their education, a lot of breadwinners won't take home paychecks that support whole families. There's a 'what next?' mentality and a lot of anger, that can easily boil over in a crowd situation," he added.

A final decision on the school closures is expected to come as early as Friday afternoon.

When the organisation faced shortfalls in previous occasions, it managed to sustain itself with emergency appeals and advancing donor contributions, but the latter option has now been foreclosed by previous years of borrowing.

Last year, the US and the European Union were the biggest contributors to UNRWA's projects respectively giving around $130 million and $106 million annually, which makes up a total of around 45 percent of the organisation's core budget.

In 2013 Arab counties, foundations and NGOs collectively contributed $206 million to the organisation.

In Gaza alone, the number of people in desperate need of food assistance from the organisaton has escalated from 80,000 in 2000 to at least 860,000 today.

Overall the number of refugees the UNRWA provides humanitarian aid for has boomed from 750,000 in its founding year in 1949, to almost 5 million.

This extreme rise is partly due to the unique provision relating to the "right to return" that permits Palestinian refugees to pass their refugee status on to their offspring, but need has also escalated due to repeated rounds of fighting in Gaza and the ongoing four-year-long crisis in Syria; both for Palestinians trapped inside the country and those who were displaced again in third-party countries, typically Lebanon and Jordan.

When the organisation faced shortfalls in previous occasions, it managed to sustain itself with emergency appeals and advancing donor contributions, but the latter option has now been foreclosed by previous years of borrowing.


TRTWorld and agencies