While UNRWA is boasting of its services to Palestinian refugees and asking for donations, the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are accusing the UN agency of doing nothing to help them face the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Pictured: A Palestinian volunteer sprays disinfectant in the streets of UNRWA's Shatila refugee camp, on the outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon, on March 24, 2020. (Photo by Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images)
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) claims that it is on the "frontlines of responding to COVID-19," and its officials are appealing for donations to help Palestinian refugees in the Middle East. According to an UNRWA statement from April 5:
"UNRWA is doing its part to flatten the curve and has mobilized a number of prevention and control measures across its field of operations, including the issuing of hygiene products and protection gear to UNRWA staff, the distribution of educational pamphlets to refugees, the regular sterilization of camps and UNRWA facilities, and the support of students at home through our Education in Emergencies programme. UNRWA is committed to providing emergency relief and maintaining essential services like food assistance, education, and primary health care for the millions of Palestine refugees that depend on us, but in order to do so, we need your help."
While UNRWA is boasting of its services to Palestinian refugees and asking for donations, the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are accusing the UN agency of doing nothing to help them face the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.
Those considering donating to UNRWA ought first to listen to the voices of the leaders of the Palestinians in Lebanon who are accusing the UN agency of negligence and failing to fulfill its promises to help the Palestinians battle the pandemic.
The Palestinians' complaints against UNRWA are embarrassing for the agency's administration and expose its attempt to mislead donors into believing that UNRWA is making a herculean effort to assist the refugees in Lebanon.
The Palestinian accusations come in the aftermath of a report published last year, detailing the abuses of authority among the agency's senior management team.
The 10-page document, prepared by the agency's ethics office, cites "credible and corroborated reports" that members of an "inner circle" at the top of UNRWA have engaged in abuses of authority and nepotism for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives.
The report concludes that the senior UNRWA officials' conduct presents "an enormous risk to the reputation of the UN" and that "their immediate removal should be carefully considered."
It appears, however, that one year after the report was leaked, UNRWA has still not drawn important conclusions from the allegations that its senior officials have engaged in misconduct and nepotism. At least, that is what the Palestinians in Lebanon are saying.
A group called the Leadership of the Alliance of Palestinian Factions in Lebanon has accused UNRWA of "procrastination and negligence" in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and threatened to step up protests in the coming days if the agency does not "assume its responsibilities towards the Palestinians."
The group condemned UNRWA's "failure" to respond to Palestinian appeals for urgent help. "We initiated a meeting with the UNRWA management in Lebanon and demanded that the agency accelerate necessary aid to the Palestinian refugees," the group said.
"The UNRWA administration promised to contact potential donors for financial aid and grants, but nothing has happened. UNRWA's management has shown that it deliberately failed to fulfill its promises of securing funds for aid, and even exceeded the time limit they requested."
The group added that UNRWA's failure is a "clear indication of its indifference and contempt towards the Palestinian refugees suffering from poverty, hunger, and disease, particularly since the UNRWA administration has not yet seriously dealt with the coronavirus pandemic."
Munir al-Maqdah, a senior official with the Palestinian Fatah faction in Lebanon, accused UNRWA of "evading its responsibilities" and said he did not understand why the agency was not sending specialized teams to the Palestinian refugee camps to help their residents prepare for the outbreak of the virus. "We are facing an imminent threat, and if the virus spreads there will be a real catastrophe [in the refugee camps]," al-Maqdah warned.
He also complained that UNRWA did not spend the $5 million it had allocated as aid for children in the refugee camps to help them deal with the negative repercussions of the coronavirus, adding:
"Hunger is knocking on our doors and our people are suffering from extreme poverty in light of the difficult economic and living conditions and the unemployment rate that rose from 60 percent to 80 percent after the outbreak of the coronavirus."
Salah Yusef, member of the Palestinian Liberation Front, another Palestinian faction in Lebanon, complained that UNRWA "has done nothing despite repeated appeals since the beginning of the crisis." UNRWA, he said, "must assume its responsibilities to provide relief aid and employment for the Palestinians."
Ayman Shana'ah, a Hamas representative in Lebanon, also criticized UNRWA for failing to deal with the coronavirus pandemic among Palestinian refugees:
"We have entered into a lengthy dialogue with the [UNRWA] administration since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, but we have not reached the desired results yet, not in terms of health or relief."
The Hamas official said that UNRWA has not supported the Palestinian camps with medical protective gear and disinfectants. In addition, he said, UNRWA has failed to take any steps to provide the Palestinians with financial aid: "UNRWA must assume its responsibilities with financial aid in order to avoid an imminent social explosion."
UNRWA recently said it urgently needs $14 million to prepare and respond to the coronavirus pandemic outbreak over an initial three-month period. According to UNRWA Acting Commissioner-General Christian Saunders:
"Overcrowded living conditions, physical and mental stress and years of protracted conflict all make the vulnerable population of over 5.6 million Palestine refugees particularly susceptible to the ongoing threats of COVID-19. All of the Agency's five fields' host governments and authorities have announced a series of robust measures to cope with the spread of COVID-19, which UNRWA will follow and factor into its operations."
Mustafa al-Sawwaf, a Palestinian political analyst from the Gaza Strip, said that UNRWA has failed to help the Palestinian refugees. "The agency was supposed to move quickly and without delay to help the refugees," al-Sawwaf said. "However, UNRWA has failed to help the refugees."
Meanwhile, the Lebanese human rights activist Riad Issa alleged that UNRWA has for years failed to assist the Palestinian refugees, and that the problem did not begin with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. "The crisis is not related to lack of funding," he said. "Palestinians have been complaining about UNRWA's lack of services for many years. We haven't seen UNRWA do anything in Lebanon to prevent the spread of the disease."
If the Palestinians are saying that UNRWA hasn't been helping them for years, why are the agency's heads appealing to donors for urgent financial aid? Are the donors aware of the Palestinians' complaints and will they demand explanations from UNRWA about where the money is going? If UNRWA is not capable of helping the Palestinians during a critical time of a pandemic, why is it continuing to ask the international community to pump millions of dollars into its coffers?
A final question demands to be asked: Where is the responsibility of the Lebanese government and the Arab states towards their Palestinian brothers in Lebanon? Why does an Arab living in an Arab country need a UN agency or any other international party to help him or her?
When will Arab governments hosting Palestinians assume their responsibilities and provide them with the most basic line item of all: health care? The Palestinian public is trapped: Arabs appear to care nothing for their Palestinian brothers, while UNRWA appears to care only about collecting funds to pay the salaries of its managers and workers.
Bassam Tawil, a Muslim Arab, is based in the Middle East.