Last updated: January 28, 2013 3:27 pm

Funding sought for Palestinians in Syria

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At this week’s donor conference for Syria in Kuwait, one UN official will be championing the cause of a group of people caught up in the civil war whose plight is often overlooked: the country’s half a million Palestinian refugees.

Filippo Grandi, who heads the UN agency responsible for displaced Palestinians, will be looking for new funding to help the refugees, who have felt the brunt of recent fighting around Damascus. About 400,000 of the 525,000 Palestinians in Syria live in or near the capital city.

“The conflict is coming toward this area,” Mr Grandi, commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, told the Financial Times ahead of the donors’ meeting. “It is the nature of the conflict – it has become bigger and no part of the country is immune any more.”

Late last year the Yarmouk camp in the Damascus suburbs, home to Syria’s biggest concentration of Palestinian refugees, was engulfed in the fighting. Thousands of people fled, mostly to other places in Syria, but some to Lebanon too.

Palestinians have been caught in the middle of the conflict in more ways than one. Although traditionally grateful for the haven that Syria provided them in the past, some have turned against Bashar al-Assad’s regime recently because of the deaths of Palestinians in regime shelling and because they see the president’s Alawite religious minority as targeting their fellow Sunni Muslims.

UNRWA is seeking $91m to fund its operations for the coming six months, $75m of which will be for refugees in Syria, and the rest for Lebanon and Jordan.

The request is part of a broader $1.5bn the UN is seeking for its humanitarian operations at Wednesday’s conference in Kuwait, hosted by Sheikh Sahah Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al-Sabah, the emir of Kuwait.

The UN faces a massive shortfall in humanitarian aid as the flow of refugees into neighbouring countries increases. According to another official with the UN’s refugee agency, new arrivals are crossing the border into Jordan at four times the rate previously anticipated and “we’ve run out of money”.

The total sum the UN is seeking also covers the half a million people who have fled from Syria to neighbouring countries, as well as the more than 4m people the world body says need help inside Syria.

Syria’s Palestinians are largely working class and have suffered from the spread of the fighting and from Syria’s deepening economic malaise. As a group, they tend to work for or run small enterprises, many of which have had to shut down because of the fighting.

UNRWA estimates that more than 20,000 Palestinians have become refugees twice over, with about 20,000 crossing to Lebanon and another 3,000 to Jordan. In both countries, because of their touchy relations with existing refugee communities formed after the founding of Israel, Palestinians are sometimes regarded with suspicion.

“The political sensitivity of the Palestinians is part of their vulnerability,” says Mr Grandi. On a recent trip to Lebanon, he says, “everywhere I went, the Lebanese said: ‘I hope they will go back soon.’”

UNRWA was founded in 1949 and provides what Mr Grandi calls “state-like services”, including basic education and healthcare, to about 5m people in the Palestinian territories and neighbouring countries.

Amid the competing demands for financial support from the international community expected in Kuwait – not to mention from new crises like the war in Mali – Mr Grandi acknowledges that he will need to make his point forcefully.

“The whole country needs attention from the humanitarian point of view,” he says. “My mission in Kuwait is to remind them that there is a particularly vulnerable group that needs attention from them as well.”

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