UNRWA funding cuts put Lebanon's Palestinian refugees on alert

A child holds a booklet as he waits inside a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) health center at Shatila Palestinian refugee camp, in Beirut suburbs, Lebanon January 30, 2024. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

A child holds a booklet as he waits inside a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) health center at Shatila Palestinian refugee camp, in Beirut suburbs, Lebanon January 30, 2024. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

What’s the context?

Palestinians in a Beirut refugee camp are bracing for hardships as UN agency says it could be forced to halt operations by month-end

  • Countries cut funding to UN agency over Hamas allegations
  • Palestinians in crisis-hit Lebanon rely on UNRWA support
  • Agency says could be forced to close by end of February

BEIRUT – Like many fellow residents of a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, Shady Choucair despaired when he heard last week that countries had halted their funding to the U.N. agency for Palestinians (UNRWA).

"It's a disaster. We were able to survive off the help we got from UNRWA," he told Context in his small grocery store in the Mar Elias refugee camp in Beirut, where he has lived with his family for over a decade.

More than a dozen donor nations including the United States, Germany and Britain have paused their funding to the aid agency following Israeli government allegations that 12 of UNRWA's 13,000 Gaza employees were involved in deadly Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas gunmen in southern Israel.

U.N. officials have said UNRWA aid is a lifeline for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip as fighting rages between Israel and Hamas militants.

For the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees living in crisis-hit Lebanon and Syria, the cuts could also jeopardise the provision of basic services - from schooling to waste management.

UNRWA said on Thursday it will most likely be forced to shut down its operations in the Middle East, including in Gaza, by the end of the month if funding does not resume.

Choucair, who receives UNRWA cash assistance to boost his tiny income from the grocery shop, said he feared he would be unable to pay the rent and buy his medicine for several medical conditions if the money stops.

"You want to do something about it, but you can't. It's out of our hands," said Choucair, who is also worried that the free schooling his nine grandchildren receive could be stopped.

A worker walks on scaffoldings in a construction site at the Israeli settlement of Har Homa, in the occupied West Bank December 28, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Go DeeperPalestinians lose jobs as Israeli firms seek foreign replacements
Palestinians search through the rubble at the site of Israeli strikes on houses in Jabalia refugee camp, in northern Gaza, November 14, 2023. REUTERS/Anas al-Shareef
Go DeeperGaza's tech 'window to the world' shattered by Israel-Hamas war
Palestinians gather to collect water, amid shortages of drinking water, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip October 15, 2023. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Go DeeperIn Gaza, Israeli bombardment makes already dire water crisis worse

'Catastrophic consequences'

UNRWA was set up to help the 700,000 refugees of the war surrounding Israel's founding in 1948 and provides essential services from education and healthcare to microloans and sanitation management to them in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

More than half a million children are enrolled in UNRWA schools and around two million people benefit from its health services, it said on its website.

A lapse in funding would come at a dire moment for refugees in Lebanon and Syria, both of which remain mired in deep economic crises, said Riccardo Bocco, an expert on refugees at the Geneva Graduate Institute, a university.

"Without the money from UNRWA, who in Lebanon will take care of the health of the Palestinians? Their schools? Nobody," he added.

Following the allegations against UNRWA staff in Gaza, the agency opened an investigation and severed ties with members suspected of being involved in the Hamas attacks, and has urged donors to keep supporting it.

Aid agencies have joined its calls, with the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) warning that defunding would have "catastrophic consequences" for the people of Gaza.

The Israeli offensive launched in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks, in which some 1,200 people were killed and 253 taken hostage, has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, displaced most of Gaza's population, left many homes and civilian infrastructure in ruins, and caused acute shortages of food, water and medicine.

"It's difficult to imagine that Gazans will survive this crisis without UNRWA," Thomas White, director of UNRWA Affairs in Gaza, said in a statement on Thursday.

Beyond Gaza

But beyond Gaza, the financing pause threatens UNRWA's vital assistance to some six million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, many of whom are already experiencing economic hardship, said Ayham al-Sahli, a researcher at the Beirut-based Institute for Palestine Studies.

Palestinians fled to Lebanon and other Arab states in what they call the "Nakba", or catastrophe, when they were driven from their homes as Israel was created in 1948, although Israel contests the assertion that they were forced to leave.

The tents that first sheltered them have given way to camps like Mar Elias, crammed with badly built concrete buildings separated by narrow alleyways.

But the status of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, whether survivors from the first days or their descendants, has not changed much over the decades: they remain stateless, cannot own property and are limited in the jobs they are permitted to do.

That means they have been particularly hard-hit by the country's four-year economic meltdown, with many still reliant on UNRWA aid, Sahli said.

The agency is "involved in every detail of the lives of the Palestinian refugees", he added.

In Syria, where civil war has devastated the country for more than a decade and where about 90% of its people live below the poverty line, UNRWA provides more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees with cash assistance and conducts development and environmental health projects in refugee camps, according to the agency's website.

'Out on the street'

At a toy shop in the maze of alleys in Mar Elias, Hanadi al-Yusri - a Syrian refugee whose husband is Palestinian - said she was reeling from the news about UNRWA's funding cuts, and worried about how it would affect her two children.

"The kids will be left without vaccines," she said.

"We never expected this to happen, we are still in shock," said the 27-year-old, who uses cash assistance from the agency to help pay for rent and electricity in her family's one-bedroom apartment.

Fearing for his safety due to Israeli fire on southern Lebanon since the Hamas conflict erupted, Hussein Ahmad, 62, left his home in the Rashidieh Palestinian refugee camp and headed to stay with relatives in Mar Elias.

He said he was concerned about the potential impact of cuts to UNRWA's support to schools in the camps, where they are taught about their heritage - and the "Nakba" that led to their displacement.  

"Our children go to UNRWA schools and learn about Palestinian history," he said as he sheltered from the rain in a grocery store in the camp.

"Where will they get that now? They will be out on the street."

(Reporting by Nazih Osseiran; Editing by Helen Popper.)

Context is powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation Newsroom.

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles


  • Government aid
  • Housing
  • War and conflict
  • Economic inclusion

Featured Podcast

A fist with the Lebanon flag is shown on a grey wall background. Thomson Reuters Foundation

Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?

The show's producers reflect on how the seismic events in Middle East over the past months have affected life in Lebanon

A fist with the Lebanon flag is shown on a grey wall background. Thomson Reuters Foundation

Get ‘Policy, honestly’ to learn how big decisions impact ordinary people.

By providing your email, you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Latest on Context