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The New Arab

Schools, clinics shut as strike hits UN Palestinian agency in Jordan

The UN Palestinian agency has been hit with financial crisis [Getty]

Date of publication: 3 November, 2019

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The strike demanding pay rises is being observed by around 7,000 workers, UNRWA spokesman Sami Mshamsha said, and comes as the agency faces an unprecedented financial crisis.

Thousands of employees of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees went on strike in Jordan on Sunday, shutting schools and health centres that provide services for more than two million people.

The strike demanding pay rises is being observed by around 7,000 workers, UNRWA spokesman Sami Mshamsha said, and comes as the agency faces an unprecedented financial crisis.

It has brought to a standstill work at UNRWA schools, clinics and centres providing social welfare to refugees across Jordan, Mshamsha said.

"We deplore this strike and we are worried about the impact it will have on the services provided to the refugees," he said.

A union of UNRWA workers said the action that began Sunday morning was "open-ended" and all staff members were observing it.

Pupils and students should stay at home as UNRWA-run schools and universities would remain closed, it said.

More than two million Palestinians are registered as refugees with UNRWA in Jordan.

The agency runs 169 schools in the kingdom - where some 120,000 students are enrolled - as well as a faculty of science and educational arts, 25 primary healthcare centres and other services.

UNRWA was set up in 1949 after more than 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled during the war surrounding Israel's creation the previous year.

It provides vital schooling and medical services to some five million Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, including annexed east Jerusalem. It employs around 30,000 people, mostly Palestinians.

In 2018, the United States suspended and later cut all funding for UNRWA, causing a financial crisis that threatened to see its schools and hospitals closed.

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

Read more: As UNRWA sexual misconduct allegations unfold, the international community decides to punish ordinary Palestinians

The allegations included in the report by the agency's ethics department, first published by Al Jazeera in July, were scrutinised by UN investigators.

UNRWA said at the time it was cooperating fully with the investigation and that it cannot comment in detail as the probe is ongoing.

The report describes "credible and corroborated" allegations of serious ethical abuses, including involving UNRWA's top official, Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl.

The report paints a picture of a small number of mostly foreign senior leaders centralising power and influence while disregarding UN checks and balances.

It says the allegations include senior management engaging in "sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives".

One senior official named in the report has left the organisation due to "inappropriate behaviour" linked to the investigation, UNRWA said, while another has resigned for what the agency called "personal reasons".

UNRWA said in response to AFP questions that it "is probably among the most scrutinised UN agencies in view of the nature of the conflict and complex and politicised environment it is working in".

"Over the past 18 months, UNRWA has faced immense financial and political pressure, but its entire staff body has steered it, serving 5.4 million Palestine refugees through the most unprecedented financial crisis in its near 70 years of history," it said.

In June UNRWA commissioner general Pierre Krahenbuhl told a news conference in Amman that the agency faced an expected $211 million shortfall in funding for 2019, calling on donors to fill the gap.

Mshamsha said the union has demanded a salary increase of 200 Jordanian dinars (around $280) but agreed to ask for half that amount following negotiations with UNRWA.

UNRWA, however, said it could only agree to a salary increase of 70 dinars per month, he said.

"Unfortunately the union rejected the offer and decided to go ahead with the strike," Mshamsha said, calling on the union to return to negotiations.

Trump's administration, along with Israel, accuse UNRWA of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The agency disputes that and says the vital services it provides would otherwise not be available to Palestinians who benefit from them.

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