Cash-strapped UN agency on tenterhooks over probe

UNRWA waits on results of mismanagement probe, claims US objection to uniquely expanded 'refugee' definition is 'an attack.'

Marc Burleigh, AFP,

UNRWA HQ in Gaza
UNRWA HQ in Gaza
Flash 90

The United Nations (UN) agency for "Palestinian refugees" is waiting to hear the outcome this month of a probe into alleged mismanagement that has dented its already severely depleted funding, one of
its top officials said Monday.

The UN Relief and Works Agency's (UNRWA) director for Judea and Samaria operations Gwyn Lewis told AFP in Brussels: "We're waiting with bated breath because it obviously has financial implications."

She said the conclusions of the probe are expected to be delivered "around the end of October" to UN chief Antonio Guterres, who would then issue public and internal "follow-up steps."

The timing is crucial as the agency's three-year mandate is up for renewal this month, and money is tight.

UNRWA has been skating on very thin financial ice since last year, after US President Donald Trump decided to suspend, then eliminate entirely his country's contribution to the agency's budget, due to the agency's "unsustainable" model which includes an "endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries."

UNRWA's financial woes were compounded by the accusations of abuse by the agency's management, leading other key donors -- the Netherlands and Switzerland -- to snap shut their purses.

According to a copy of an internal UN report obtained by AFP in July, senior management at UNRWA engaged in "sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain."

Lewis did not confirm those allegations, noting only "rumors" and leaks to the media.

"None of us have actually seen it," she said of the report, adding: "Our sense is that it's not about financial misappropriation or corruption, it's linked to management and human resources issues."

She did note that the agency's deputy chief, Sandra Mitchell, had been replaced in August by an acting deputy commissioner-general tasked with strengthening human resources and financial oversight.

Lewis said she was in Brussels for two days of meetings with European Commission officials to shore up UNRWA's mandate renewal and, importantly, to maintain funding.

Despite program cutbacks, the agency faces an $89 million (80-million-euro) shortfall for the rest of this year, she said, and "financial uncertainty" beyond that.

UNRWA's budget for this year is $1.2 billion, with around 90 percent of that allegedly paying for the 30,000 staff it employees, most of them teachers, doctors and nurses.

She claimed Washington's closer alignment with Israel and its objection to refugee status being applied to the descendants of those displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948, was part of "an attack on refugees in order to try to resolve this issue outside of the peace process."

The international definition of refugee includes only first-generation refugees. UNRWA's definition, however, includes an ever-growing population of descendants, even those who are already settled in other areas