UN relief agency actively seeking new ways to continue to support Palestinian refugees

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Updated 13 May 2022

UN relief agency actively seeking new ways to continue to support Palestinian refugees

UN relief agency actively seeking new ways to continue to support Palestinian refugees
  • UNRWA will remain committed to its task until there is a just solution to the conflict and the plight of the refugees, the acting director of its Washington office told The Ray Hanania Radio Show
  • ‘We get to points in the year where we are living month-to-month and even week-to-week. That is no way to help Palestinian refugees and no way for our 30,000 staff to live,’ said Bill Deere

CHICAGO: Bill Deere, the acting director of the Washington office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency said on Wednesday that all options and ideas are being explored as part of efforts to strengthen and sustain support for the nearly 6 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants forced from their homes during the 1947 and 1967 wars.

On April 23, Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner-general of the UNRWA, suggested that other UN Agencies could be enlisted to help support the agency’s mandate.

He acknowledged that over the years “resources available to UNRWA have stagnated, while the needs of Palestinian refugees and cost of operations keep increasing.” He said it would "not be reasonable” for the agency to remain dependent “almost exclusively on voluntary funding from donors.”

Deere, who was appearing on The Ray Hanania Radio Show, which is sponsored by Arab News and broadcast on the US Arab Radio Network, said that despite the financial challenges, UNRWA is committed to providing support until the long-term status of the refugees is determined through a just and lasting solution to the conflict.

He acknowledged that Lazzarini’s comments had prompted some to mistakenly believe he was suggesting that the UNRWA be disbanded. But Deere said the idea of using existing UN support agencies to assist in delivering the broad range of services UNRWA now provides to Palestinian refugees could be a solution to the agency’s funding challenges. 

“It is an idea from a very innovative leader who is trying to get us out of this seeming loop that we live in,” he said. “We get to points in the year where we are living month-to-month and even week-to-week. That is no way to help Palestinian refugees and no way for our 30,000 staff to live.”

In 2018, in the hope of forcing the Palestinians to accept a peace agreement unilaterally dictated by Israel, President Donald Trump halted all funding to help Palestinians, including donations to the UNRWA.

“The previous (Trump) administration terminated all humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people; they weren’t just singling out UNRWA,” Deere said. “And to my knowledge this was the only group of people in the world the US denied humanitarian assistance to.

“Under the Biden administration, they restored support for the agency. Last year we received about $339 million from the US, a little below the all-time high of $360 million (in 2017). But it is an effective and good partnership that we have with the United States.”

The UNRWA is funded mostly through voluntary contributions from governments and the US is the biggest donor, Deere said. The agency’s mandate is renewed by the General Assembly every three years and its programs evaluated annually by UN member nations.

The “steady decline” in funding for UNRWA services has forced the agency to tap into reserves and implement austerity measures, according to Deere. In 2021, he said, the agency had a $60 million deficit. The previous year, the deficit was $72 million.

“This year, UNRWA faces a year-end funding gap in the range of $100 million, although the number is constantly in flux and will be discussed at a donor conference in June,” Deere added.

“We are certainly not stopping our traditional fundraising or walking away from our mandate — to be clear, we are not walking away from the mandate. UNRWA is not walking away from Palestinian refugees.”

There are concerns about the future, he admitted, and the agency is looking at “long-term alternative solutions” to address the funding challenges. But despite this it continues to provide exemplary services to refugees and their descendants, he added.

“The UNHCR and the World Bank put out a study last year; basically, UNRWA is the gold standard in Refugee education,” Deere said.

“Not only are our kids about a year ahead of host-country schools, we do it in an incredibly cost-effective manner. The British Council presented approximately 60 awards to various schools of ours as we are successfully preparing students to be responsible global citizens.”

He also highlighted the successful response by the agency to the COVID-19 crisis.

“Nowhere was the agency on better display of what it does than during the COVID pandemic,” Deere said. “It was something we can be incredibly proud of, how quickly this organization pivoted within days to deal with this kind of new reality and a situation made worse by the fact that Palestine refugee camps are among the most densely populated in the world.

“But within days, we shifted to tele-medicine. Our health clinics became COVID triage centers. We began home deliveries of food and medicine. We provided food assistance to more than 1 million people in Gaza alone.

“Our teachers began producing materials for remote learning. In fact, we put out material to help parents deal with remote learning. Last year, we unveiled what we call a digital-learning platform and that is going to become the backbone of UNRWA education going forward, as not just the UNRWA but the world moves forward in asynchronous learning. There is really a lot to be proud of in working for this organization.”

UNRWA provides services to refugees in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Deere said about 5.7 million Palestinians are eligible, although only about 3 million actively seek the agency’s support.

It is a direct-service provider and all work is supervised by a staff of about 30,000 people, most of them Palestinian refugees themselves. The UNRWA’s 700 schools emphasize human rights, conflict resolution, tolerance and gender equity, Deere said. The agency has helped create 700,000 jobs in the region through a loan-equity program, he added, with an emphasis on promoting self-reliance among female refugees. It also provides healthcare services that receive more than 8.5 million patient visits a year at 140 primary clinics, and food assistance for more than 1 million Gazans.

Elsewhere, Deere said the Syrian crisis has severely affected more than 500,000 refugees who rely on food and financial assistance from the UNWRA to survive. In Lebanon, more than 400,000 refugees survive on support from the agency. He added that he believes that Arabs could so more to assist such efforts.

“We are hoping for more support from the Arab World,” he said. “It would go a long way toward addressing our funding challenges.”

The UNRWA can accept donations from the public through online portals such as UNRWA.org and UNRWAUSA.org, he added.


People smuggler sentenced to 7 years in jail in Austria

People smuggler sentenced to 7 years in jail in Austria
Updated 21 min 15 sec ago

People smuggler sentenced to 7 years in jail in Austria

People smuggler sentenced to 7 years in jail in Austria
  • The 19-year-old Latvian was found guilty of people smuggling and causing fatal injuries, but was not found guilty of murder

VIENNA: An Austrian court on Monday sentenced a people smuggler to seven years in prison over the deaths of two Syrians who suffocated in the crammed minivan he was driving, Austria’s news agency reported.
The bodies of the two men were discovered last October when Austrian authorities stopped and searched a van at the border with Hungary.
Thirty people in total were crammed in the vehicle, whose driver fled the scene but has later arrested in Latvia and extradited.
The 19-year-old Latvian was found guilty of people smuggling and causing fatal injuries, but was not found guilty of murder, APA reported.
He said he would accept the verdict, but the prosecution can still appeal it, APA said.
A court spokeswoman could not immediately be reached by AFP.
Austria’s interior ministry announced in May that police had smashed a group believed to have smuggled tens of thousands of mostly Syrians, including the two found suffocated, from Hungary to Austria.
A total of 205 people suspected to be linked to the group have been arrested in central and eastern Europe, the ministry said.
Those smuggled, including children, were trying to reach western European countries, including Germany and France.
The October discovery of the dead men recalled a dire event in August 2015 when 71 people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan suffocated in the back of an air-tight van where they had been hidden by people smugglers.
The bodies, including those of three children and a baby, were discovered in Austria but they had died while still on the other side of the border.
Almost four years later, the Hungarian courts sentenced their smugglers to life imprisonment.
The emotion aroused by that tragedy triggered a brief opening of the borders to hundreds of thousands of people wishing to reach Western Europe.
But Austria and other European countries have since fortified borders to stop people smuggling.


AU urges probe into deaths of Africans at Spain-Morocco border

AU urges probe into deaths of Africans at Spain-Morocco border
Updated 50 min 7 sec ago

AU urges probe into deaths of Africans at Spain-Morocco border

AU urges probe into deaths of Africans at Spain-Morocco border
  • AU Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat: I express my deep shock and concern at the violent and degrading treatment of African migrants attempting to cross an international border
  • Spain’s enclaves in Morocco, Melilla and Ceuta, are the only land borders the European Union shares with Africa

NAIROBI: The African Union Commission chief has voiced his shock at the “violent and degrading” treatment of African migrants trying to cross from Morocco into Spain after 23 people died, and called for an investigation into the incident.
About 2,000 migrants stormed the heavily fortified border between the Moroccan region of Nador and the Spanish enclave of Melilla on Friday.
At least 23 migrants died and 140 police officers were wounded in the ensuing violence, according to Moroccan authorities. It was the heaviest toll in years from such attempts to cross the frontier at Melilla.
“I express my deep shock and concern at the violent and degrading treatment of African migrants attempting to cross an international border from Morocco into Spain,” AU Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat said in a statement on Twitter late Sunday.
“I call for an immediate investigation into the matter and remind all countries of their obligations under international law to treat all migrants with dignity and to prioritize their safety and human rights, while refraining from the use of excessive force.”
Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, said a UN Security Council meeting would be held behind closed doors on Monday to discuss the violence African migrants face in Melilla.
Kenya, Gabon and Ghana — the African non-permanent members of the Security Council — called for the meeting, he said.
“Migrants are Migrants: whether from Africa or Europe, they do not deserve to be brutalized in this way,” Kimani wrote on Twitter.
Speaking at a regular press briefing, UN chief Antonio Guterres’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said: “We very much deplore this tragic incident and the loss of life.”
Spain on Monday thanked Morocco for its “collaboration” in the defense of Spanish borders and once again blamed “international mafias that traffic human beings” for the incident.
But calls for a probe have increased, with around 50 migrant rights groups calling the Melilla deaths “the tragic symbol of European policies to externalize the European Union’s borders.”
“The death of these young Africans... alerts us to the deadly nature of the security cooperation on migration between Morocco and Spain,” they added.
Spain’s rights ombudsman said it accepted a complaint from several NGOs on the incident and has requested information from the relevant administrative bodies.
The migrant rush in Melilla came after Madrid and Rabat normalized their diplomatic relations following an almost year-long crisis centered on the disputed Western Sahara territory.
For Spain, the main objective of the diplomatic thaw was to ensure Morocco’s cooperation in controlling illegal immigration.
Spain’s enclaves in Morocco, Melilla and Ceuta, are the only land borders the European Union shares with Africa.


Amnesty accuses Lithuania of arbitrarily detaining migrants, subjecting them to inhumane treatment

Amnesty accuses Lithuania of arbitrarily detaining migrants, subjecting them to inhumane treatment
Updated 27 June 2022

Amnesty accuses Lithuania of arbitrarily detaining migrants, subjecting them to inhumane treatment

Amnesty accuses Lithuania of arbitrarily detaining migrants, subjecting them to inhumane treatment
  • Treatment of refugees from Iraq, Syria and other regions in stark contrast to the treatment of refugees from Ukraine white_check_mark eyes raised_hands

LONDON: Amnesty International has accused Lithuanian authorities of arbitrarily detaining thousands of migrants in military centers, subjecting them to “inhumane treatment” and torturing them.

Amnesty International released a report detailing how refugees and migrants have been held for months in prison-like facilities in Lithuania, where they are denied fair asylum procedures and subjected to serious human rights violations.

Amnesty International conducted interviews with dozens of refugees from Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Many have reported being beaten, insulted and subjected to racially-motivated intimidation and harassment by guards.

They also complained of insufficient access to sanitary facilities and healthcare.“In Iraq, we hear about human rights and women’s rights in Europe. But here there are no rights”, said a Yazidi woman who was detained in the Medininkai detention center to Amnesty.

This treatment stands in stark contrast to the treatment of people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine.

“While Lithuania has rightly extended a warm welcome to tens of thousands of people fleeing Ukraine, the experience of the detainees we spoke with could not be more different. This raises serious concerns about institutional racism embedded within Lithuania’s migration system.” said Nils Muižnieks, Europe Regional Director of Amnesty International.

In July 2021, lawmakers passed new legislation mandating the detention of people who irregularly crossed into Lithuanian territory.

In order to escape EU legal safeguards against arbitrary detention, Lithuanian authorities described such detention as “temporary accommodation”.

The detainees interviewed by Amnesty International reported the aggressive behavior of the center’s guards when they protested against the appalling detention conditions.

Authorities retaliated by beating them with batons, spraying them with pepper spray, and using taser guns.

A psychologist who worked at the center is being investigated for alleged sexual violence against detainees in his care.

Amnesty International also documented how racialized detainees, particularly Black men and women, were subjected to profoundly offensive racist slurs.

Despite the overwhelming evidence released today by Amnesty and other international organizations and local groups over the last year, the European Parliament claims that there is no hard evidence of these international and EU law violations.

Speaking to Euronews, Lithuanian interior minister Agne Bilotaite said the report “tends to reflect the views and testimonies of only one side,” and that Lithuania had “continuously cooperated with all human rights institutions and organisations and adhered to the principle of open dialogue and the rule of law.”


UK to remove visa requirement for GCC nationals visiting from 2023

UK to remove visa requirement for GCC nationals visiting from 2023
Updated 27 June 2022

UK to remove visa requirement for GCC nationals visiting from 2023

UK to remove visa requirement for GCC nationals visiting from 2023
  • ETA is part of the British government’s plan to fully digitize its border by the end of 2025
  • ETA is akin to a multi-travel visa covering extended stays

LONDON: Gulf Cooperation Council nationals will no longer be required to apply for a visa before visiting Britain from 2023, the UK government announced today.

Under Britain’s new Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) scheme, rolling out next year, nationals from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will join Americans and Canadians in benefiting from visa-free travel.

Home secretary Priti Patel said: “This move means that Gulf states will be among the first countries in the world to benefit from ETAs and visa-free travel to the UK.

“Our number one priority is the security of the UK border and by launching ETAs we can ensure that everyone wishing to travel to the UK has permission to do so in advance of travel and refuse those who pose a threat.”

The ETA is part of the British government’s plan to fully digitize its border by the end of 2025 and mirrors the list of nationals who do not currently require visas for short stays or transiting.

Once granted, the ETA is akin to a multi-travel visa covering extended stays but until its introduction, GCC nationals will continue to benefit from access to the Electronic Visa Waiver scheme, which can be completed online before visits to Britain.

Describing the ETA process as “straightforward,” the Home Office said the scheme will “act as an additional security measure allowing the government to block threats” but would also provide individuals “more assurance at an earlier point in time about their ability to travel.”


In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia

In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia
Updated 27 June 2022

In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia

In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia
  • For centuries, Aceh was the last Southeast Asian port of call for Hajj, known as the ‘Porch of Makkah’
  • Saudi Arabia was one the biggest single aid donors when a tsunami devastated Aceh in 2004 

JAKARTA: As they leave for Hajj, pilgrims from Aceh prepare for a transformative and spiritually moving experience, which for many of them also rekindles a special, centuries-old connection they feel for Saudi Arabia.

The westernmost province of Indonesia, Aceh is the site of the earliest Muslim kingdoms in Southeast Asia, which began to form in the late 13th century. 

It was the last Southeast Asian port of call for pilgrimages to the holiest city of Islam, and in the 17th century court chronicles of Aceh rulers began to refer to it as “Serambi Makkah,” or “Porch of Makkah” — a term that is still used by the Acehnese today.

Now, the opportunity to depart for the real Makkah and perform Hajj is something they look forward to for years, if not decades.

“In Aceh it’s about 30 to 31 years,” Mizaj Iskandar, who has been tasked by the local government with organizing the pilgrimage, told Arab News.

“They are certainly very emotional because they have been waiting for so long,” he said. “By the time they receive the call, they must be moved, happy, and in disbelief. All these emotions you can find in almost all the participants.”

One of the pilgrims, 58-year-old Kamariah from Aceh Besar regency, could not find the words to describe how moved she was that she would be able to see the Kaaba at the center of the Grand Mosque, Masjid Al-Haram, in Makkah.

“I don’t know how to express how happy I am to see Kaaba,” she said. “It feels like I will never want to leave it.”

Like other pilgrims, Kamariah has been preparing for the journey, especially spiritually.

“Before we go to the holy land, we must have already cleansed our hearts,” she said. “We hope to become good Hajj pilgrims.”

One of Islam’s five pillars of faith, the Hajj was restricted over pandemic fears to only 1,000 people living in Saudi Arabia in 2020. In 2021, the Kingdom limited the pilgrimage to 60,000 domestic participants, compared with the pre-pandemic 2.5 million.

But this year, as it has already lifted most of its COVID-19 curbs, Saudi Arabia will welcome 1 million pilgrims from abroad. More than 100,000 of them are arriving from Indonesia — the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. And among them, 2,022 are from Aceh.

“My family and I have not stopped expressing our gratitude to Allah, because we have been called this year to go for Hajj,” Amalia Sabrina, a doctor from Sigli town in the Pidie regency of Aceh, told Arab News.

“I once had a dream of the event that has now taken place, and it feels almost like deja vu to be in the same position as in that dream.”

She arrived in the Kingdom last week and was enjoying the hospitality with which pilgrims have been received.

“Whether it’s the hotel service, food, laundry, service at the shops, or the people,” she said. “Everyone has been friendly.”

Sabrina’s younger brother Miftahul Hamdi, a football player, was also grateful to be in the Kingdom.

“I am so grateful to get this opportunity to go for Hajj this year,” he said. “Aceh is often referred to as a ‘Makkah porch,’ so being able to go for Hajj here is just very fulfilling and makes me feel very grateful.” 

The enthusiasm Acehnese have for the Hajj pilgrimage, a sacred milestone for Muslims, is reinforced by their historical links to Saudi Arabia.

Marzuki Abubakar, researcher and lecturer at Ar-Raniry State Islamic University in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, said that Islam in Aceh has revolved around Arabia ever since its advent in Southeast Asia. The coastal region also connected the rest of the islands that constitute present-day Indonesia with the Middle East.

“Aceh was a transit point for Hajj pilgrims to go to Makkah from all over the archipelago,” he said. “There’s amazing enthusiasm among Acehnese to go for Hajj.”

What has recently strengthened the bond was the help the Acehnese received from the Kingdom during one of the darkest periods in the region’s history — the 2004 tsunami.

“They are emotionally attached to Saudi Arabia because of the help they received after the tsunami,” Abubakar told Arab News.

Saudi Arabia was one the biggest single donors to the relief response, when the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami devastated Aceh, killing more than 160,000 people — nearly 5 percent of the local population.

Saudi charities helped rebuild houses, medical facilities and the 17th-century Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh — a symbol of religion and identity of the Acehnese.

Nurlinda Nurdin, a radio reporter from Banda Aceh, who performed the pilgrimage in 2006 and spent two months covering Hajj preparations in Saudi Arabia, said that before the journey she would often fall ill, but all her ailments were gone when she was there.

“When I arrived in Saudi Arabia, I was always healthy. I was fully working, didn’t feel exhausted at all, I was enjoying myself, I was comfortable,” she told Arab News.

“I just felt super close, as if my house was just right behind the mountain. My heart was just at ease.”