Following Washington's decision to dramatically slash funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), its head Pierre Krähenbühl launched a $800 million (CHF747 million) emergency appeal in Geneva on Tuesday. The Swiss foreign ministry says it is preoccupied by the US aid cut to UNRWA.
“In financial terms this is the most serious financial crisis ever in the history of this agency,” the Swiss UNRWA Commissioner-General told reporters in Geneva.
Founded in 1949, UNRWA external linkfocuses on providing essential services to some 5.3 million Palestinian refugees across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including running 700 schools and 140 health clinics. The US is UNWRA's largest donor, supplying nearly 30% of its budget.
Donald Trump’s administration put on hold two planned payments of more than $100 million to UNRWA this month and informed the body that it will be contributing just $60 million to this year's budget, down from $360 million last year.
Krähenbühl claimed the cuts have a ‘political dimension’ and were clearly linked to the Palestinian leadership's decision to freeze ties with the Trump administration after his controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, adding that Washington could no longer be the main mediator in talks with Israel.
Several countries have indicated that they will pay their annual contributions to UNRWA earlier to help meet the funding gap. These include Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Belgium, Kuwait, the Netherlands and Ireland.
“As a first step, Switzerland has already paid its entire 2018 contribution of CHF19 million ($20.3 million) on January 11,” the Swiss foreign ministry confirmed to swissinfo.ch.
“Switzerland is also ready to work with donors, host countries and UNWRA to address the challenges of the current situation. With this in mind, it offered its support to UNWRA to organize a ministerial conference to be held in Geneva at the end of February 2018."
The Swiss ministry added that it was ‘extremely worried’ by the US budget cut, and stressed that "a reduction in the US contribution to UNWRA would clearly limit its work and put pressure on countries hosting refugees. The humanitarian consequences would be immediate, such as in the areas of school and public health, and would also be felt in the long term with increased unemployment and poverty, food supply problems, lack of prospects for the future and increased despair."
The Gaza Strip, where UNWRA supports more than a million Palestinian refugees, would be particularly affected, the ministry said.
Bern warned: "In addition to the severe humanitarian consequences, major cuts could also lead to greater instability in the Middle East. UNWRA's action is central to peace and stability."
Adapted from French by Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch