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UN agency: We’ll continue to serve 5.3m Palestinian refugees

Director of UNRWA Operations in Jordan Roger Davies stands in his office next to a mosaic. (Photo/UNRWA)
AMMAN: A senior official of the UN agency that has served Palestinian refugees since 1949 has rejected any hint of change in UNRWA’s mandate, saying it can’t be altered “except by a majority decision of the UN General Assembly.”
In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Roger Davies, the field director of UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency) in Jordan, said: “We often hear that UNRWA will change and that its services will be carried out by (the UN refugee agency) UNHCR, I hear that everywhere. I understand that, but I assure everyone that we work on the basis of a clear mandate and only the UN General Assembly can change our mandate and not member countries.”
Davies said that UNRWA is a temporary agency and since its formation in 1949, it has had to renew its mandate every three years. In the most recent decision,167 countries renewed UNRWA’s mandate. The current mandate is valid until the next vote in June 2020.
Davies, a UK national, told Arab News that the agency is trying its best to meet all its obligations despite the recent cut in funding by the US. “We are not focusing on what we will stop. We will continue to serve the 5.3 million Palestinian refugees. We have a UN mandate and member states have an obligation to find the needed funds to help us carry out this mandate.”
The Jan. 16 US decision to hold back $65 million of the agreed $125 million was a break of the Trump administration’s commitment. The US decision came after the close of a year in which the agency was already $49 million short, thus causing a big cashflow problem.
“Every year the Americans have come through with the biggest support in cash and advocacy. So when that is not there, we have lost a lot,” said Davies.
The UNRWA official said that 11 countries have come through with advancing the agency committed monies that were supposed to be paid at a later stage to help the agency to address its operational commitments.
“We have an annual operating budget of $760 million which goes to pay doctors and teachers and other operating costs. On top of that we have requests for construction of schools and a separate emergency appeals for the occupied territories and for Palestinian refugees caught up in the Syrian crisis who have to flee to Jordan and Lebanon. The construction and emergency appeals come up to another $800 million.”
While the Arab League has committed to support 7.8 percent of the annual UNRWA operating budget, Davies says that last year Arab countries contributed only 3.5 percent, even though Saudi Arabia has made large contributions to the construction, development, and emergency funds, making it overall the third largest contributor to UNRWA.
As for the American contributions, Davies said he doesn’t know what they want to do. “We are a humanitarian organization and we have to ask everyone to help us, and we realize and it is the sovereign right of every donor to decide how much to contribute.”
Since the negative US decision, UNRWA has launched a “dignity is priceless” global campaign and will be convening a major fundraising event soon. Davies says the agency will focus on trying to secure support from the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank and others, especially in Asia and among member states in the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC). “We have been accredited to receive zakat donations and are pursuing OIC countries which made a specific recommendation to support UNRWA.”
The director of Jordan field operations says that even though 2.2 million out of the overall 5.3 million Palestinian refugees live in Jordan, the agency spends only 20 percent of its budget in Jordan. As a result of the recent US decisions, Davies told Arab News, the agency had to let go more than 100 sanitation workers who were employed on a contract basis.
Davies says sanitation is the biggest challenge in Baqaa, Jordan’s largest camp, and the people have noticed that. “We collect every day, but we can’t cover big areas.”
Davies told Arab News that to address this problem the UN agency has had to make “arrangements with the local refugee community, encourage volunteering and initiate an awareness campaign to convince refugees to use the containers and not to throw garbage in the streets.”

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