The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini attends a press conference in Geneva on January 24, 2023. AFP
UNRWA -- which provides services to nearly six million Palestinians registered in the Palestinian territories, including Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria -- warned that "compounding challenges" had placed it under "immense strain".
The agency, which counts nearly 30,000 staff -- most of them Palestinian refugees -- runs more than 700 schools that offer education to half a million children, and provides health, sanitation and social services, including food and cash assistance.
Out of the $1.6 billion requested, UNRWA said $848 million was needed for such core services.
It said another $781.6 million was needed for emergency operations.
UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said the agency played "an indispensable role" for millions of Palestinian refugees.
"We work to maintain the delivery of basic services in an incredibly difficult financial and political context," he said in a statement.
The agency warned that most Palestinian refugees now live below the poverty line and a growing number are dependent on UNRWA for assistance, sometimes for their "sheer survival".
Lazzarini said he had just returned from a trip to Syria where he had "witnessed firsthand indescribable suffering and despair".
That situation, he said, was "sadly mirrored in other places like Lebanon and Gaza where Palestine refugees are hitting rock bottom."
"Many told me that all they asked for was a life of dignity; that's not much to ask for."
UNRWA has long faced chronic budget shortfalls, which worsened dramatically in 2018 when former US president Donald Trump cut support to the agency.
His administration branded UNRWA "irredeemably flawed," siding with Israeli criticisms of the agency founded in 1949, a year after Israel's creation.
US President Joe Biden's administration has fully restored support but UNRWA has said it is still struggling.
Last year, UNRWA only raised nearly $1.2 billion of the $1.6 billion it had appealed for, Lazzarini said.
"We cannot and should not be always scrambling to bring in funds to cover our contribution to human rights and stability," Lazzarini said, stressing the need for "a more sustainable model of funding... a predictable, long-term and regular source of funding."