US defunding of Palestinian refugee agency creates crisis for Jordan

Why We Wrote This

Defunding UNRWA is just one measure the Trump administration is using to shake up the Middle East status quo. But in Jordan, home to more than 2 million Palestinians, officials fear a 'catastrophe.'

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
Palestinians outside an aid distribution center in the southern Gaza Strip rallied Sept. 4 against a United States decision to cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The UNRWA budget crisis is also being felt hard by communities across Jordan.

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The Trump administration’s decision to stop $300 million in United States support for UNRWA caught the United Nations relief agency for Palestinians off guard. The ensuing budget crisis is being felt hard by communities across Jordan, home to more than 42 percent of the 5 million registered Palestinian refugees served by UNRWA. The resource-poor country, already struggling to accommodate 1.2 million Syrian refugees, is seeking to rally countries to keep the agency’s vital services from shutting down. On Tuesday, Jordan held an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo to discuss the financial crisis. Despite recent pledges from Gulf Arab nations and China, UNRWA still faces a $217 million shortfall in its 2018 budget, and unless it receives the funding by the end of this month it will be forced to close its schools and health centers. Ahmed Ibrahim, a third-generation refugee, praises UNRWA schools as a bright light amid the grim life in his Zarqa refugee camp. “Schools are the only thing children have here, and it is our only hope of lifting ourselves up from the camp,” he says. “If the agency closes the schools, our future will be lost.”

Although never great with numbers, Ahmed Ibrahim says every day he sees the impact of a budget deficit on his home.

Here, in Zarqa Camp, where more than 25,000 people live on one-tenth of a square mile, he says life is changing.

Because of staff shortages at the local UNRWA health clinic, Mr. Ibrahim must now wait up to six hours to see a nurse for his chronic cough – often times he is only seen for a total of three minutes. There are few other options. He, along with 68 percent of camp residents, are uninsured.

Trash in front of his home and across the camp has been piling up since March, when UNRWA, the UN relief agency administering to Palestinian refugees, was forced to lay off most of its part-time street cleaners and sanitation workers following an initial round of US funding cuts.

Each day the third-generation refugee sweeps up the plastic bags, soda cans, newspapers, and the half-torn trash bags strewn along the narrow street he lives on – eventually it will be dumped along with the rest of the trash at one end of the camp on a hillside.

Yet despite the harsher conditions, all praise what many say are the crown jewels of the camp: the UNRWA schools, where 6,000 local children from primary to high school prepare for what residents describe as a “fairer chance at life.”

“Schools are the only thing children have here, and it is our only hope of lifting ourselves up from the camp,” Ibrahim says as he gestures toward makeshift cinderblock houses on either side of the narrow street. “If the agency closes the schools, our future will be lost.”

The decision by the Trump administration to stop $300 million in US support for UNRWA on August 31 caught the agency off guard, and the ensuing budget crisis is being felt hard by communities across Jordan.

Diplomatic appeal

The resource-poor country is seeking to rally the international community to keep the agency’s services from shutting down. Despite recent pledges from Gulf Arab nations and China, UNRWA still faces a $217 million gap in its $1.2 billion budget for 2018, threatening its services to 5 million registered Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

Few are feeling the squeeze tighter than Jordan, home to more than 42 percent of the Palestinian refugees served by UNRWA. Of the 2 million-plus Palestinians in Jordan, more than 400,000 live in 10 refugee camps operated by the agency.

Jordan’s King Abdullah reportedly has played a direct role in appealing to the international community to save UNRWA; using his personal ties to drum up support and funds. 

With many in Amman foreseeing the eventual complete withdrawal of US funds, Jordan has been working behind the scenes since January to rally the EU, Gulf countries, Japan, Sweden, and China to increase their support.

Jordan has particularly emphasized its historical, geographical, and political links to the Gulf Arab countries, arguing that by destabilizing Jordan, a closure of UNRWA would threaten the Gulf’s borders, interests, and security. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar pledged $50 million each to UNRWA this year.

Raad Adayleh/AP
Children attend an official ceremony to return to school at an UNRWA-run school at a Palestinian refugee camp, Al-Wehdat, in Amman, Jordan, Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018.

On Tuesday, Jordan held an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers on the sidelines of the Arab League annual meeting in Cairo to discuss ways to bridge UNRWA’s financial crisis.

Yet officials say the Arab world alone cannot rescue UNRWA or secure its future, and cite the following reasons: Saudi Arabia remains embroiled in a costly war in Yemen, Qatar is under an economic blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, and Egypt is battling inflation and a currency crisis amid a painful IMF restructuring program.

UNRWA says that unless it receives the $217 million in funding by the end of this month, it will be forced to stop all services in October, closing its schools and health centers. Officials say they will have no choice; some 66 percent of UNRWA’s budget goes to running 711 schools serving 526,000children across the region.

For Jordan, a catastrophe

It is a scenario Jordanian officials in private call a “catastrophe.” The kingdom, already hosting 1.2 million Syrian refugees, simply cannot fill the void if UNRWA closes, they say.

The Jordanian government faces a $1 billion budget deficit and is facing a debt crisis; the government has already cut back bread and electricity subsidies and is trying to impose a controversial income tax.

Jordan’s government schools are already overburdened by the influx of 120,000 Syrian students, a dramatic increase that has forced many public schools to shorten hours and work on a two-shift system; teaching two different batches of students in the morning and the afternoon.

A record-high 18.7 percent unemployment rate nationwide has forced many Jordanian families to pull their children out of private schools and place them in already-packed public schools; 50,000 students transferred from private to public over the last few months.

But perhaps even a greater blow would be the loss of UNRWA health clinics, which provide services to more than 1 million people in Jordan ranging from check-ups to minor surgeries and maternity wards.

Refugees and Jordanian officials all fear that the ripple effect of UNRWA shuttering its doors will reach far beyond the boundaries of refugee camps.

It is a concern of many like Ismael Suleiman, who was born in Zarqa Camp but moved into neighboring Zarqa city as a young man.

Despite having moved out of the camp, he and his family of five remain reliant on its services. Not having health insurance, when his first child was due to be born, Mr. Suleiman sent his wife to an UNRWA medical clinic at Zarqa Camp. The entire family now goes to the center for checkups, immunizations and treatment – at 10 percent of the cost of uninsured persons at hospitals.

“If the agency closes its health clinics, all of us would be left in a difficult position,” Suleiman says from  behind the counter of his hummus and falafel shop near the entrance to the camp. “We wouldn’t be able to get health care.” 

“It would be disaster for every family.”

It is these personal “disasters” that worry Jordan the most. Nationwide popular protests over economic discontent and taxes here brought down the government three months ago.

While there have been no major protests in camps, community leaders say they are ready to protest any further cut in UNRWA services should they shutter their doors. Jordanian officials say that UNRWA crisis is a matter of “national security and stability.”

New donors?

With the aid of Jordanian diplomacy, UNRWA is working to attract new, “younger” donors including Southeast Asian majority-Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. The agency has also become accredited in many Muslim countries as a religiously certified receiver of zakat tax, the annual 2.5 percent of income and assets Muslims are obliged to pay each year. 

At the end of September, Jordan is hosting a conference along with Sweden and Japan at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York to discuss ways to raise funds for the agency and to make it more financially sustainable – and immune from attempts by the US administration to dismantle it.

“Jordan’s priority is not only to help UNRWA weather the current crisis, but to find ways to make it stable and sustainable in the future to ensure its life-saving services and protect refugees’ rights,” says a Jordanian government source who was not authorized to speak on the subject.

But it remains yet to be seen whether these new avenues will be fruitful or if UNRWA can actually receive the funds in time before shutting its doors. It is a development many across Jordan are watching with bated breath.

“We have been left 70 years without a solution,” says Ibrahim, referring to the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis with Israel's founding in 1948. “If they take away our tools to live, then we will truly have nothing.”

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