Canada urged to do more as UN funding crisis deepens in Gaza

Following a severe cut in funding from the United States, the UN agency that assists Palestinian refugees has laid off workers, which threatens vital programs that provide food, medical treatment and schools. Canada and other nations are being urged to do more.

Agency that assists Palestinian refugees struggles to keep vital programs going amid severe budget cuts

Job cuts have sparked protests by laid-off workers outside of the UNRWA office in Gaza City. (Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

​Fuad el-Atrash says figuring out how to keep food on the table for his family and whether he can afford to send two of his children to university keeps him up at night, now that he has lost his job in the Gaza Strip.

El-Atrash is one of 113 Gaza-based employees of UNRWA, the United Nations agency that assists Palestinian refugees, who were told July 25 they would be losing their jobs at the end of August as the organization deals with a major funding shortfall.

"It's like a nightmare," he said Thursday. "I feel I am living in a disaster."

UNRWA is in a cash crunch after the United States, long its largest donor, slashed the amount it gives the agency, providing just $60 million US of the $365 million it had promised this year. Its Gaza director is urging Canada and other nations to do more to help bridge the gap.

Earlier this year, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that people in the U.S. pay "HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect."

Trump's missive came a month after he controversially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, breaking decades of U.S. neutrality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The U.S. Embassy was moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in May, leaving Palestinians and their leaders incensed.

"With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them," Trump wrote in another tweet.

Canada's UNRWA contribution

After the Americans reduced their funding, Canada kicked in $10 million Cdn in additional support for UNWRA earlier this year. The Trudeau government restored Canada's contribution to UNRWA in 2016, initially giving the agency $25 million.

The Conservative government of Stephen Harper cut funding to UNRWA in 2009, alleging the organization had links to Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.

UNRWA provides food aid to about half of Gaza's two million residents. (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

UNRWA's Gaza director Matthias Schmale thanked Canada for the additional money, but urged Ottawa and other nations to do more to help Palestinian refugees.

"We would obviously … appreciate if more were possible, in financial terms," he said. "And then Canada's voice is heard in the world. And the more Canada's government and the prime minister can do to influence others to take this seriously, and to open their pockets a bit more, that would also be very helpful."

Brittany Fletcher, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said the federal government is "keenly aware" of UNRWA's budget situation. But, in a statement to CBC News, she gave no indication of additional money for the agency, beyond the extra $10 million given earlier this year.

"Canada responded to UNRWA's appeal for funding earlier this year to help meet the Agency's urgent needs as the humanitarian situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate," Fletcher said.

UNRWA, which was founded in 1949, provides food, medical treatment and schools, among other services, for about five million Palestinian refugees. It operates in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, as well as in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

UNRWA's director in Gaza Matthias Schmale, left, and the Qatari ambassador to Gaza at a news conference earlier this year. Schmale urged Canada and other nations to do more to help Palestinians following UNRWA's funding cuts. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

'We are having to scale back significantly'

In addition to the layoff notices for 113 Gaza employees, nearly 600 full-time workers were moved to part-time employment in an emergency program that delivers food to about half of Gaza's two million residents.

About 150 employees in the West Bank are also being let go. The workers' union estimates that the U.S. funding cut will eventually cost about 1,000 jobs.

Schmale said that money from the agency's main budget was being diverted to ensure food deliveries continue. But he worries about big cuts to the organization's mental health program.

Palestinian schoolgirls outside their classrooms at an UNRWA school in Gaza City earlier this year. The funding crisis could keep the schools closed this fall. (Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

Moving 400 counsellors to part-time work will mean "less psychological support to the refugees, which is of course badly needed, after three wars here," Schmale said, referring to conflicts between Israel and Palestinian militants in 2009, 2012 and 2014.

"The needs for psychological support are huge and we are having to scale back significantly," Schmale said.

Schmale said a decision has not been made yet whether 275 schools will be opened this fall. If more money isn't found quickly, 270,000 students in Gaza could miss out on their education, something Schmale described as "devastating."

Workers protest cuts

The job cuts have sparked an open-ended protest outside of UNRWA's office in Gaza City, where laid off employees vent their frustration at the organization — and the U.S.

"This is political," said el-Atrash, who has taken part in the demonstrations.

"We believe the United States is opening up a war against UNRWA. What they want to do is shut down UNRWA."


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.