UN agency for Palestinians may defer salaries for workers

JERUSALEM (AP) — The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said Monday it needs to raise $70 million by the end of the month or it will not be able to pay the full salaries of thousands of employees through the end of the year.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA, said it has notified its entire workforce of 28,000 that it will be forced to defer their salaries for the rest of the year. The agency said most of the workers affected are refugees themselves, based in countries across the Middle East.

“If additional funding is not pledged in the next weeks, UNRWA will be forced to defer partial salaries to all staff,” said the agency’s commissioner-general, Philippe Lazzarini. “I am deeply saddened to know that the earned salaries of our fearless, resilient social, sanitation and health-care workers on the front lines and our teachers working to ensure students’ education continue during this emergency health crisis are at risk.”

The agency said in a statement that its funding had run out on Monday and that the impact would be “major.” Tamara Alrifai, a spokeswoman, said the exact impact was not yet known because the agency is still raising funds.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will reach out to the 193 U.N. member states “as much as he needs to, to try to get money” for UNRWA, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

“The secretary-general has been a big advocate of the stabilizing presence of UNRWA and the work that it does,” Dujarric said. “He will continue to advocate for them and advocate in a way that will hopefully lead to money coming into the agency very quickly.”

UNRWA was established to aid the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948. It provides education, health care, food and other assistance to some 5.5 million refugees and their descendants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Alrifai said those services would not be affected by the cash crunch.

UNRWA announced a separate fund-raising appeal in September in hopes of raising some $94 million in emergency funds to deal with the coronavirus crisis. Alrifai said the agency had reached about 60% of that goal.

UNRWA’s finances have been ravaged by a Trump administration decision to slash hundreds of millions of dollars of aid as well as a crisis in confidence after its previous commissioner was accused of abusing his authority. President-elect Joe Biden has said he plans on restoring aid to the Palestinians.

Alrifai said that although the agency was hopeful Biden’s election might lead to a resumption of funding from the U.S., the current crisis required an immediate response.

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