A Palestinian boy rummages through a garbage dump east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, April 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib / APA )
People in Gaza are searching through rubbish to find food as Palestinians battle unprecedented levels of poverty, the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees has said.
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 published by The Guardian daily.
“In Gaza, people are going through the garbage,” Lazzarini said, referring to reports from UNRWA staff in the enclave. “More people are fighting to provide one or two meals a day to their families.”
Lazzarini, an experienced humanitarian, was appointed Commissioner-General of UNRWA in April, and leads it at a time of deep crisis for the agency.
The situation is exacerbated by the threat of coronavirus ripping through refugee camps across the Middle East, home to many of the 5.6 million Palestinians supported by UNRWA.
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 organisation and predictable funding.”
Limited by pandemic restrictions – he had to isolate for four weeks in Jerusalem and Amman – Lazzarini has been focused on tackling the books first by rallying donors, even if it is via video calls.
“We are constantly in crisis mode when it comes to the cashflow,” he said. “UNRWA is constantly running after the cash.”
With a typical yearly budget deficit of well over £100m, the organisation of 30,000 staff is never more than four or five weeks away from running out of funds. “It’s unsettling,” he said, adding that UNRWA’s schools and health services are cutting back.
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.