Analysis 26 Jun 2020

A perfect storm: the humanitarian impact on Palestinian refugees of concurrent health, economic and political crises

Gwyn Lewis

Last December, Great Britain joined other member states of the U.N. General Assembly to vote overwhelmingly to extend the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Once again, the U.K and the world reaffirmed the Agency’s role as a vital source of stability in a region rife with ongoing conflict. 

Over 500,000 Palestine refugee children attend UNRWA schools, 50 percent of whom are girls. More than 3.5 million refugees received primary health care services at our 144 health centres; and approximately 1.5 million refugees affected by conflict, blockade and occupation receive urgent humanitarian assistance. 

A cost effective and innovative humanitarian and development service provider, UNRWA provides vital and quality services to Palestine refugees, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. UNRWA provides its services across its five fields of operation: the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. 

Response to Covid 

UNRWA’s long experience in conflict zones produced life-saving results when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. In a densely populated camp, or in Gaza which is under blockade; immediate prevention measures stopped the rapid spread of the virus. 

In a matter of just a few days, UNRWA programmes swiftly shifted to accommodate the new health requirements: medical consultations were administered by phone, food and medicine delivered straight to people’s homes, social workers provided psycho-social support to vulnerable families over the phone, and our schools successfully transitioned to distance learning. 

Thanks to UNRWA’s almost 30,000 staff members, the vast majority of whom are refugees themselves, UNRWA was able to adapt its services to meet the challenge. Working in concert with the WHO and our host nations, UNRWA’s efforts resulted in life-saving mitigation in the pandemic’s spread.

But beyond the immediate health hazards of Covid-19 that UNRWA helped largely mitigate, the longer-term economic fallout of the pandemic and the resulting closure of small businesses and the loss of jobs across the Palestinian territories poses another set of serious challenges. 

As one father of five living in Deheishe camp in the West Bank put it, “we may have avoided Corona, but now I have a lost my job and don’t know how to feed my children.”  

Even in a global pandemic Occupation continues

In the West Bank, the back-drop to the health and economic crisis is ongoing tension and violence due to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and continued settlement expansion. And now, since the beginning of the year, a looming political crisis brought on by the threat of annexation.

This poses serious humanitarian concerns: three children have been killed in the West Bank since the beginning of the year, and a significant spike in violence and clashes was recorded following the U.S administration’s release of its “Peace to Prosperity Plan.” 

Although it is not yet clear what the scope is, or even if annexation will be announced on the 1 July, it will most likely be met with strong resistance and open hostility by Palestinians across the region against both the Israeli and US governments. 

The crisis of annexation

In fine, a community that is still reeling from the Covid-19 crisis, and facing huge economic uncertainty will potentially also have to manage increased challenges in accessing health services in East Jerusalem, permits to get to work, an increase in localized violence and in some cases home demolitions and displacement. For students that attend UNRWA schools, they may have to cross a new checkpoint to get to school, or will need a new permit to get there. 

COVID is a global pandemic that we all worked together to prevent, economic support and stimulus packages are being established to mitigate the economic decline and loss of livelihoods families across the world are now facing. 

Palestine refugees may also need to deal with another crisis that could mean loss of land, livelihood, destruction of property and for some the loss of their home. 

Annexation could also possibly be the end of their hope for a viable future Palestinian state. 

UNRWA will continue adapting the way it works to face crisis across the region, it will do all it can to secure adequate funds to maintain its services, to support humanitarian and recovery initiatives, and to provide a social safety net to the most vulnerable. 

In these difficult times, a unified stand to prevent and avert another crisis for Palestine refugees is urgent to instil a glimmer of hope for families and a new generation of children. UNRWA has been a major source of predictability and stability for millions of Palestine refugees in the region for over seven decades. It is now more urgent than ever to reassure Palestine refugees that they are not alone, including by ensuring that UNRWA is able to deliver upon its mandate.


This article is part of CMEC's "Annexation: Brittania Waives the Rules?" opinion series. The views expressed are those of the author alone.

Gwyn Lewis is Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) Operations in the West Bank.