UNRWA says schools across region set to open on time

BEIRUT: In spite of funding cuts for the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, schools for Palestinian children run by UNRWA will open on time throughout the region, including in Lebanon, the agency announced Thursday.

Lebanese officials expressed relief over the decision, while warning international funders that they should not look to Lebanon to pick up UNRWA’s programs should the shortfalls continue.

The announcement of the schools’ planned opening came after a special meeting of the UNRWA Advisory Committee in Amman Thursday.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl said in a statement that the timely opening of schools “is crucial to protect the fundamental right to education for Palestine refugee girls and boys and the community’s unwavering attachment to learning and the development of skills.” He added that “host countries have repeatedly drawn attention to the serious risks to regional stability if this were not the case.”

The U.N. agency is tasked with providing a range of services to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, including health care and education. In Lebanon, UNRWA runs 66 schools and one vocational center, serving about 38,000 students in total.

UNRWA’s funding, which had already been shaky for years, got an extra blow this year, as the United States – traditionally one of the largest funders of the agency – cut $300 million from its expected contribution for the year. The U.S. announced in January that it would release only $60 million, freezing more than half of its planned funding for the first half of the year.

Krahenbuhl said the agency has been able to mobilize $238 million in additional funding from other countries since January to help fill the gap, but added, “I wish to be clear that UNRWA is by no stretch of the imagination out of the woods.”

The commissioner said the agency needs another $217 million to ensure the schools can run through the end of the year.

Officials will aim to raise much of the needed funding through special events held on the margins of the upcoming meeting of United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Of the additional funding that has come in so far, UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness said the largest contributors had been Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with $50 million each; the European Union, with more than $15 million; and the United Kingdom, Norway and Turkey, with more than $10 million each.

Abdel-Naser al-Ayi, project manager with the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, a body formed by the Lebanese government to oversee policy matters relating to Palestinian refugees, said UNRWA had made the right decision in opening the schools on time and called on the U.S. to rethink its position and for other donors to do more.

He cited the agency’s “vital role in protecting the stability of the country as well as the well-being of the Palestinian refugees.”

“We were anxious regarding the security situation inside the camps, particularly in Lebanon,” had the schools not opened on time, Ayi said.

Ayi added that the Lebanese government had made it clear to donors that they should not look to Lebanese authorities to take over the schools or other programs currently run by UNRWA if the agency’s funding problems continue.

“We think that at a certain point this argument was present with some of the donors, and we were very clear in our position,” he said.

“Lebanon would not take any responsibility from the agency under any condition.”

In recent months, Palestinian students and popular committees in Lebanon have staged protests and sit-ins over rumored plans to shut down UNRWA schools.

Fadi al-Tayyar, a spokesman for UNRWA’s Lebanon office, said the opening date has yet to be set, but it will be in September as usual.

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