Palestinian Refugees Protest Against UNRWA

The ongoing civil war in Syria and the ensuing flood of migrants into Europe and other countries have been at the top of the media's "talk about it" list the last few months.

With the global society finally starting to get a grasp on the full scale of the refugee crisis, and organizations like the United Nations and The American Near East Refugee Aid, ANERA, working tirelessly to soothe the flood of displacement and provide, there seems to be a blossoming hope for the millions who are suffering in the wake of this global disaster.

However, when we take a close look at some of these helpful hands, we don't always find the best examples of humanitarian relief. The United Nations and Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, announced an $81 million dollar deficit leading to cuts in much needed areas such as housing and medical treatments for Palestinian refugees. The results of this deficit have already been traumatically impactful. A 23-year-old Palestinian refugee in Lebanon named Omar Khudeir, who suffers from a hereditary blood disorder, self-immolated outside of a health clinic in protest of UNRWA healthcare cuts which made him unable to afford hospitalization costs at the Burj al-Shemali camp in Tyre, Southern Lebanon.   Protests in Lebanon escalated the day after Khudeir set himself on fire; people gathered outside the office of the UNRWA's director and surrounding clinics and schools to protest the unfair aid cuts.

Many others like Khudeir are now suffering from lack of medical attention and housing because of what the UNRWA explains as "lack of funding from international donors."

This is a sad and tragic wake up call, not only for UNRWA, but for donors on an international scale. The current budget fall is related to several things, including aid "trends" and alleged misuse of donations by the organization itself.

Most of today's marketing in terms of donating to the refugee crisis focuses on Syria. The idea behind the "what bleeds leads" is dangerous because those that have been affected for years tend to fall to the wayside, forgotten. The refugee crisis is not new. But the way the world hears about it is changing every day since the upsurge of social media and the "everyday journalist."

On July 26, 2015 the UNRWA published an article about the dire need of financial donations. "I am alarmed that our current funding crisis may force us to consider a delay in the start of the school year," said UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl.

When the article was published the UNRWA had enough capital to finish out 2015 financially strong. However, the outlook for 2016 was grim, with good cause. "The funding is insufficient to guarantee the stable provision of its education services from September onwards," the article stated. So it's not only medical and housing that is in severe danger, educational services are being scaled back to quell the deficit.

When choosing a crisis to assist, donors need to look at more than what's being broadcast on the news and blasted on social media that day. Donors need to remember those who have been affected by the disaster for decades and have suffered for years without hope.

One also needs to look within the organization itself. UNRWA has been flagged in the past for their lax screening processes, and most recently for their lack of any anti-fraud system, which is imperative for employees to whistle blow and report suspicious activity. That means that anyone soliciting donations or those employed in the financial department could feasibly skim money wherever and however they deem fit.

In this letter dated 30 June 2014 signed by Sir Amyas C. E. Morse Comptroller and Auditor General of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, addressed to the President of the General Assembly, it is stated that: "UNRWA does not have an anti-fraud policy document that guides management in addressing risks of fraud at all levels of UNRWA operations. An organization-wide anti-fraud policy is vital if UNRWA staff are to understand the actions to be followed when investigating fraud and other corrupt practices. An anti-fraud policy should clearly outline the principles and procedures that employees should follow in reporting suspected fraud or corruption, and set out the channels employees should use to report any concerns."

There is no excuse for such a large organization, especially with such a well-recognized name as the UNRWA to be operating without a proper anti-fraud system in place. This huge oversight calls into question whether staff members are acting with the interest of the people suffering, or the interest in their own pockets.

"I see UNRWA staff living a lavish life. They are traveling, attending conferences, and then you hear about a deficit," said Mohammad Shawish, a Palestinian living in Jerusalem. "Shouldn't expenditure of available funds be addressed?"

The 2013 audit of the UNRWA states "The Board has identified a number of issues that will need to be considered by management if the effectiveness of UNRWA operations is to be improved."

In the report, the auditors found that payments to suppliers for refugee needs had to be deferred to meet staff salary needs. That's $5.26 million that was deferred from suppliers to meet the salary obligations of $52.34 million in December 2013.

Shouldn't the needs of those being displaced, injured and even killed come before the needs of staffers? Working for an organization like the UNRWA, these workers should know that their salary is at risk of being cut to support those in dire need. Or at least that's how it should work from a humanitarian standpoint.

Residents of Bourj El Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp have raised many questions about the organizations practices and their lack of truly listening to them. One resident, Cyrine, wonders "why does the UNRWA hire foreign workers and pay for their accommodation, travel, etc. when we, qualified Palestinians, can work for the organization and then they will be providing a salary, saving a family, and reducing wages?"

Although the UNRWA employs 30,000 people, most of them being Palestinian refugees, that number also includes foreign workers.

Palestinians in Lebanon cannot work in many professions in Lebanon mainly because of their refugee status. A 2012 report by the International Labour Organization states that 50 percent of Palestinian Refugees earn 500,000 LBP ($330.47) or less per month.  

"You go to a job interview, and the moment you say you are Palestinian, the employer apologizes," says Ahmed from Bourj El Barajneh camp. The refugees are barred from practicing such professions as medicine and law and are not allowed to benefit from the Social Security System.

Now, with the UNRWA's deficit combined with the exclusion of Social Security, many ill refugees or pregnant women will be without the care and help they need.

Noura, a Palestinian in Beirut, raised questions about the expenditures of UNRWA employees. "The UNRWA flew many people last year for conferences," she said. "Then we see people getting denied from services for lack of funding. Shouldn't be there better planning for how donors money is being spent? We have had enough."

It's organizations like the UNRWA that are supposed to be saving the world. Instead, when you really look into the gut of the operation it seems like they are part of the problem. What can we do to fix this?

There needs to be several measures taken in order to address this problem. First, international donors need to be reminded that Palestinian refugees have been displaced since 1948 with no civil rights in their Arab host countries. While we are assisting millions of Syrians, there are Palestinian refugees that have been displaced for 67 years now. They also need a chance in life and a country to call their home.

There also needs to be better financial structure to UNRWA itself. Hire more local Palestinians instead of foreign workers, focus expenditure on what's really pressing and important rather than putting money in flights, conferences, etc.

The UNRWA has good intentions and most of their work saves lives and brings hope to those displaced by the unrest in the Middle East. However, many things need to be changed in order for Palestinian refugees to receive the assistance they need, corruption needs to be seriously taken, and the expenditure of UNRWA need to follow a more sustainable and transparent model.