Across Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza and elsewhere, Palestinian refugees are suffering at new depths because of the pandemic, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency chief, Philippe Lazzarini. “There is despair and hopelessness,” he said in an interview.
“In Gaza, people are going through the garbage,” Lazzarini said, referring to reports from UNRWA staff in the enclave. Lazzarini, an experienced humanitarian, was appointed commissioner general of UNRWA in April, and leads it at a time of deep financial crisis for the agency. Add to that the threat of coronavirus ripping through refugee camps across the Middle East, home to many of the 5.6 million Palestinians supported by UNRWA. Meanwhile, Israel’s possible annexation of the occupied West Bank looms, threatening to stifle UNRWA’s work there.
Collected, diplomatic and with three decades of humanitarian experience behind him, the Swiss Lazzarini has been brought in to steady a rocking ship. “In such a highly unstable, volatile environment, we need a predictable UNRWA,” he said. “We need a predictable organization and predictable funding.”
With a typical yearly budget deficit of well over £100m, the organization of 30,000 staff is never more than four or five weeks away from running out of funds. The financial crisis exploded in 2018 when Donald Trump cut up to $300m of annual donations, months after he angrily complained that the US received “no appreciation or respect” from Palestinians for the aid.