Cuts in aid to UNRWA include Palestinians in Syria

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini (center) during a visit to Palestinian refugee areas in Syria 2022 (UNRWA)

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini (center) during a visit to Palestinian refugee areas in Syria 2022 (UNRWA)


Enab Baladi – Yamen Moghrabi

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has made headlines following several donor countries’ announcements to stop their annual financial aid to the organization, after Israeli accusations of its staff cooperating with the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in the Gaza Strip.

Amid the bloody conflict in the Strip, which, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health office, resulted in the death of more than 30,000 people, the UN agency found itself under the spotlight, becoming a bargaining chip between the countries engaged in the conflict.

While the organization is supposed to stay away from internal conflicts and politics in general, given its commitment to providing humanitarian aid in several sectors to Palestinian refugees in Syria, its role has been tainted by the regime’s intervention in its work or its control over the relief aid distribution process.

What is UNRWA?

UNRWA was established in 1949 by the UN General Assembly to provide humanitarian assistance to registered Palestinian refugees in its areas of operations until a permanent solution to their issue is reached.

The office operates in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, as well as areas inside the occupied Palestine, specifically in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Impact of funding cuts on Palestinians in Syria

UNRWA announced on February 1 that 16 donor countries had decided to stop their financial support, amounting to 440 million US dollars.

The decision made by the donor countries does not only reflect on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip but also includes employees and Palestinians in the countries where UNRWA operates. Therefore, the negative effects will extend to Palestinian refugees in Syria, who already suffer like Syrians in areas controlled by the Syrian regime, from the current living and economic crises.

UNRWA distributes emergency amounts to Palestinians living in Syria, covering three months for two groups of beneficiaries, granting each individual in a family 20 US dollars per person for ordinary cases, while a family member from a more needy and poor family is given 27 dollars.

Earlier, nine countries (Australia, Canada, Britain, the United States, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Finland) announced the suspension of funding for UNRWA, after Israeli claims of the agency’s involvement in the attacks of October 7, 2023.

France also decided to suspend its aid to UNRWA in the first quarter of 2024, according to a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

United Nations officials urged countries on January 28 to reconsider suspending funding for UNRWA, pledging to punish any employee proven involved in the Hamas attacks on Israel and warned of the cessation of aid for two million people in Gaza whose lives are at stake.

Regarding the expected impact of the donor countries’ decision, the Executive Director of the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria (AGPS), Fayiz Abu Eid, told Enab Baladi that poverty levels among Palestinian refugees in Syria have reached unprecedented levels, and their economic crises have worsened due to their inability to secure even the simplest life necessities, loss of their livelihoods, decrease in income rates, and the soaring expenses on food caused by the devaluation of the Syrian pound and its purchasing power, along with the skyrocketing inflation rates that reached their limits.

Therefore, these decisions will directly affect Palestinian refugees in Syria.

No response from UNRWA in Damascus

Enab Baladi contacted the media office director in Syria affiliated with UNRWA in Damascus, Hala Mukhles, by email through the official address published on their website.

Enab Baladi inquired about the risks threatening the operations of the organization in Damascus after the cessation of aid, as well as clarified the accusations directed at it, as mentioned in this report, and received no response at the time of publishing.

Enab Baladi remains committed to publishing any response from the UNRWA office in Damascus, acting on the principle of “the right to reply”.

A lever in the hands of the Syrian regime

The relationship between UNRWA and the Syrian regime can be described as complicated, with significant intervention from the latter in the work of the UN agency, within the fields of aid distribution and the appointment of employees within the organization’s office in Damascus.

On November 19, 2023, the Syrian regime decided to dismiss a number of the agency’s employees “for security reasons” and forced it to do so.

The executive director of the AGPS, Fayiz Abu Eid, told Enab Baladi that UNRWA in Syria suffers from interventions by the security agencies in its operations, including employment, as the matter is tied to obtaining security approval after being recommended by the ruling Ba’ath Party.

He added that this had contributed significantly to the spread of nepotism and increased corruption and appointing employees based on party affiliation, not competencies.

One of the most serious accusations against the regime is the exclusion of Palestinian refugees from employment in the UNRWA institutions, as 80% of them have become Syrians, even in the recently announced recruitment competitions, where the number of Syrian applicants equaled four times that of Palestinians, because security agencies heavily interfere in the appointment of employees in those institutions, sometimes intervening in the relief aid distribution process, according to Abu Eid.

According to a report released in March 2023 by the Financial Times, the United Nations had employed the daughter of the head of political intelligence in Syria, Hussam Louka, who is sanctioned by the United States, the European Union, and Britain for committing human rights violations, at one of its offices in Damascus.

The situation of Palestinians in Syria

Over the past years, the Syrian regime has contributed to the displacement of Palestinians from Syria, whether to areas within Syria or to refugee host countries and neighboring countries.

About 1,635 Palestinian families are scattered across the Kelli camp in northern Idlib, the Atma area, Aqrabat, Deir Ballut, and Idlib city. Palestinians from the “48-Arabs” who came there after being displaced in 1948 are also present in Sarmada, in addition to their presence in the Aleppo countryside in Azaz, Afrin, Jindires, and al-Bab.

Most of them were displaced by the regime forces and their allies from Handarat camp in Aleppo and the Yarmouk and Khan al-Shih camps south of Damascus to northern Syria, and they reside in residential settlements for displaced Palestinians, with part of them living inside the cities.

The Yarmouk camp witnessed battles and military operations between factions of the former Free Syrian Army (FSA) and regime forces, amidst a division of Palestinian factions at the time on both sides of the front, before the Islamic State group took over two-thirds of the camp in 2015.

In May 2018, regime forces took control of the area of al-Hajar al-Aswad and the Yarmouk camp, with clashes causing the destruction of over 60% of buildings and infrastructure in the camp, classified as the seventh-largest area of destruction in Syria, according to a survey conducted by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).

According to UNRWA, there are 568,730 registered refugees in Syria, and, like Syrians, they have not escaped arrests, torture, or killings over the past years.

According to the AGPS, there are 3,076 detainees in Syrian regime prisons, in addition to 333 missing individuals, and the number of Palestinian victims has reached 4,214.

The number of Syrian detainees in the custody of the Syrian regime is 135,638 out of 155,604 detainees held by various conflict parties, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR).

The Syrian regime uses a policy of severe constraints on Palestinian refugees in Syria, especially after initiating solidarity stands with Gaza in response to the ongoing Israeli escalation since October 7, 2023.

Elements from the Palestine Branch affiliated with the regime’s Military Security Division, on November 6, 2023, arrested three Palestinian activists in the town of Yalda in the Damascus countryside, following the organization of a solidarity stand with Gaza, as reported by the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria.


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