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Syrian conflict takes a toll on Palestinian aid

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AMIR BIBAWY | September 26, 2013 09:23 AM EST | AP

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UNITED NATIONS — Displaced Palestinians are losing out to Syrians in desperate need of aid, and the United Nations is asking Arab countries to pitch in and bolster funding for its agency mandated with helping Palestinian refugees.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his counterpart at the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, are co-chairing a ministerial meeting Thursday in New York on the funding challenges that the U.N. Relief and Works Agency is facing.

UNRWA, which helps nearly 5 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria in addition to the West Bank and Gaza, is facing a $54 million shortfall of its roughly $600 million annual operational budget.

"Every single year of the last few years has been difficult," UNRWA's Commissioner General Filippo Grandi told The Associated Press in an interview on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York.

"Since 2008 and the economic downturn, aid budgets in many countries have shrunk. What we are trying to do this time is we are going especially to one group of donors: the Arab donors," Grandi said.

Arab countries have made pledges to fund 7.8 per cent of the U.N. agency's operational budget, which is made up entirely of voluntary contributions, and not U.N. funding. So far, they have only contributed about a fourth of what they promised, and Grandi said the meeting's main goal is to push those donors to come up with the rest of the money.

The war in Syria, where over half a million Palestinian refugees live, has been complicating matters.

"Syria has drained a lot of humanitarian resources," Grandi said. "When you have two million refugees, a catastrophic situation inside, neighboring countries burdened by this huge crisis, of course this will drain a lot of resources and the Palestinian crisis will seem less urgent because it's been there for so long."

On the ground, the Syrian conflict has increased the plight of Palestinian refugees who live in 12 camps in Syria. "Seven are not accessible to us because of fighting," Grandi said. "More than half of 530,000 refugees in Syria, are displaced inside Syria and I would say 70,000 have left the country. These people are already refugees from before the (Syrian crisis) and they become refugees again."

But the agency is not limiting its outreach to Arab nations and Western states, reflecting a change in the field of global humanitarian aid.

"After New York, I am going to Brazil. Brazil is becoming an important donor. At this meeting on Thursday we have invited other donors such as Turkey," he explained adding that roughly 80 per cent of the aid agency's funding comes from the United States, the European Union, Japan and Australia.