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More Than 450,000 Palestinian Refugees Are Set to Miss School Due to UN Funding Shortfall

"At a time of growing instability and rising extremism, there's going to be an extra half million kids on the streets of the Middle East," Chris Gunness, an UNRWA spokesperson, told VICE News.

by Harriet Salem
Aug 13 2015, 3:25pm

Photo by Jamal Nasrallah/EPA

A United Nations funding shortfall means that more than 450,000 Palestinian child refugees are set to find their classrooms are closed on the first day back to school.

In a report to the UN's Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, UNRWA, the branch of the body charged with providing aid to Palestinian refugees, warned that the "financial crisis" looked set to "force the suspension of services relating to the agency's education program."

"At a time of growing instability [and] rising extremism, there's going to be an extra half million kids on the streets of the Middle East," Chris Gunness, a spokesperson for the agency, told VICE News. "Radical groups are in full recruitment mode… these children should be in UN schools."

In a bid to stave off the crisis UNRWA has issued an urgent appeal to donors, including the United States, Australia, and the Gulf countries, to help plug the $101 million dollar hole in its education budget, but now with just nine days to go until the start of the school year in many places the funding pot is still short.

UNRWA is mandated to provide life-saving humanitarian aid as well as state-like services, including schools and hospitals, to millions of Palestinian refugees scattered across the region but it does not have a guaranteed budget. Instead the organization depends on donor contributions, which it says have not kept pace with the huge increase in demands on its services.

Related: In Photos: Gaza One Year On, Life Amid the Ruins

In Gaza alone, the number of people seeking food assistance from the agency has increased from 80,000 in 2000 to at least 860,000 today. Overall the number of refugees UNRWA provides for has ballooned from 750,000 in its founding year, 1949, to near 5 million. The increase is due in part to a unique provision relating to the "right to return" that allows Palestinian refugees to pass their status on to offspring, but need has also increased due to repeated rounds of fighting in Gaza and years of bloody civil war inside Syria; both for Palestinians stuck inside the country and those displaced again into third-party countries, typically Lebanon and Jordan. 

In 2013 UNRWA's budget stood at $675 million, around half of which was spent on schools and educational services. 

When it faced shortfalls on previous occasions the agency managed to prop itself up with emergency appeals and advancing donor contributions, but the latter option has now been foreclosed by previous years borrowing.

A Palestinian teacher holds a banner reading in Arabic, 'My school, My life, My college is my future, and return to Palestine is my passion' during a protest in front of the UNRWA school in Wehdat refugee camp in Amman on August 12.

"It's one of the biggest crises we've ever faced... We're cut back to the bone, there's little to nothing left we can cut now. The cupboard is absolutely bare, there's nothing left, our financial resources are completely depleted," said Gunness. "We cannot continue to be mandated to do things and not be provided with the funding to do them."

In anticipation of this year's deficit the UNRWA has already implemented across the board austerity measures, including a freeze on staff travel and wages, and reducing the number of international contractors on the payroll by 85 percent.

In a bid to save more money increases in class sizes, already high at 38 children per teacher, are also being tabled despite many schools already running on a so-called "double-shift" — two consecutive school streams being taught in one building on the same day.

Related: This Might Finally Be Palestine's Year at the United Nations

On Wednesday in a bid to stymie the crisis Saudi Arabia pledged an additional $35 million, of which $19 million will go directly to plugging the hole in the education budget deficit. The United States and European Union are the biggest contributors to UNRWA's coffers last year respectively giving around $130 million and $106 million annually, a total of around 45 percent of the organization's core budget. In 2013 Arab counties, foundations and NGOs collectively contributed $206 million to the agency.

If schools don't open on August 24, it's not just children that will be affected. UNRWA is one of the largest employers in many the Palestinian refugee communities. Around 22,000 local staff are employed in its UN schools across the region. In Gaza, where unemployment stands at 43 percent, the highest in the world, UNRWA is the second-largest provider of jobs after the public sector.

The likely closures have already sparked anger in Palestinian communities which see the UNRWA as failing them. In Gaza, where approximately 22,500 children depend on UN schools, rallies outside the agency's buildings now attract scores of protesters on a weekly basis. Eggs and shoes have been hurled at the offices during demonstrations.  

BADIL, a West Bank-based NGO advocating for refugee rights, said that the shortfall revealed "a fundamentally flawed and — ultimately — entirely unsustainable approach" to the UN's protection of displaced Palestinians.

On Tuesday Ahmad Assaf, spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority's ruling party Fatah, called on international donors to step-up and donate or risk "refugees being drawn into extremist terror organizations."

Related: 'We're Watching, Waiting, Expecting the Worst': Syrians Are Escaping Jordan's Refugee Camps for Black Market Labor

In Jordan UNRWA employees have staged sit-ins outside the agency's headquarters in Amman. The country hosts the largest population of displaced Palestinians in the world as well as more than 618,000 Syrian refugees and says it is unable to cope with the burden of providing health, social and humanitarian services to the ever-burgeoning population.  

"There's a lot of frustration being directed at us," one of the UNRWA's workers, who did not want to be named, told VICE News outside a UN complex in Gaza City. 

"It's understandable, for Palestinian people education is about dignity and [the] opportunity for a better life… but if schools don't open it's going to become difficult to work here… thousands of children are going to be stuck at home missing their education, a lot of breadwinners won't take home paychecks that support whole families. There's a 'what next?' mentality and a lot of anger, that can easily boil over in a crowd situation."

A final decision on the school closures may come as early as Friday afternoon. 

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem