Palestinian Refugee Agency “on the verge of bankruptcy”

UNRWA High Commissioner Philippe Lazzarini on September 16, 2020, at the organization's headquarters in Beirut.

Philippe Lazzarini is the High Commissioner of the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA). This UN agency helps 5.8 million Palestinian refugees, including 540,000 children, in 58 camps across the Middle East. He warns of the disastrous socio-economic impact of the Covid-19 epidemic on this already very vulnerable population and calls on the international community to plug the budget of his organization, facing a hole of 200 million dollars.

What does the return to school look like in the Palestinian refugee camps during this time of Covid?

There will be a mix of distance learning and classroom courses. In the spring, UNRWA was able to adapt with agility to the requirements of containment. Because of our proximity to our beneficiaries – most of our staff are Palestinian – we have managed to maintain most of our services. But of course, access to the Internet and to a screen, the prerequisite for teleworking, is a huge issue for children in the camps, where rates of extreme poverty are increasingly high.

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How do you take lessons when you have only one phone in a family of four or the network is too weak for all of them to work together? Even the best of our students are starting to drop out. Improving the digitalization of education is one of our future challenges. We are considering a major campaign to collect tablets, coupled with an Internet connection time offer, sponsored by companies in the sector.

Where is the progression of the Covid-19 epidemic in the Palestinian refugee camps?

In July, we had less than 200 recorded cases, in our five theaters of operation (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, West Bank and Gaza Strip). The rate of contamination was lower than that of the host countries. Since then, the epidemic has progressed drastically in these countries and this has also been reflected in the camps, mainly in those in the West Bank. There were 6,876 cases on Tuesday, September 15, and 685 deaths. As everywhere, the most to fear is the epidemic of poverty. The Covid-19 has a terrible socio-economic impact on the population of the camps, already very vulnerable. Consider that in the Lebanese camps, the unemployment rate exceeds 80%. The expectations of our beneficiaries have never been higher. The problem is that our donors are about to enter a recession.

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