Remarks by Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General of UNRWA
The Second Conference on Cooperation among East Asian Countries for Palestinian Development (CEAPAD)
Distinguished Ministers and Delegates,
I would like to thank the government of Indonesia for its warm hospitality. I am grateful to our host, Foreign Minister Marty Natalagawa, whose dynamism on the international stage has given this occasion a real sense of purpose. I salute the delegation of the State of Palestine - Ministers Malki and Abu Mohammed. Their friendship and support are a pillar for UNRWA, the UN organization responsible for the welfare of five million Palestine refugees in the Middle East.
UNRWA is proud to have been associated with CEAPAD since the start and I am grateful to the government of Japan for having supported our participation. Last year, in Tokyo, I told you that in considering your important main purpose -– supporting Palestinian state-building and the Palestinian economy as steps towards achieving peace – you should include also the five million Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA in the region.
This year, my appeal is even more pressing, as many of the refugees are facing very challenging crises.
The impact of the conflict has become devastating for all civilians in Syria, including, as mentioned by Prime Minister Hamdallah at the opening, the 570,000 Palestine refugees living there. On Monday I was in Yarmouk, the suburb of Damascus which used to host one of the largest Palestinian communities in exile and which has been engulfed by war for the past 15 months. Many Palestinians have left Yarmouk, but almost 20,000 remained trapped inside. In January, after long negotiations between the parties, UNRWA was allowed to resume some assistance. Those who managed to reach our food distribution point - I witnessed this myself during my visit - emerged from the narrow streets looking more like ghosts than living people.
I have observed many conflicts in my career, but I have seldom encountered as much destruction, hunger, fear and despair as I saw in Yarmouk this week. We were left shocked and speechless.
I dwell on Yarmouk because it is a tragedy in its own right, but also because - somehow - it has become a symbol of what goes so often wrong in the lives of Palestine refugees: a population deprived of a just solution to their predicament and of any redress to the injustice that caused their flight in 1948; and a population living in exile in volatile places: often - as in Syria - trapped in other people’s wars.
Meanwhile, in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the expansion of Israeli settlements and other measures are constantly reducing the space, resources, rights and dignity of all Palestinians, including refugees; in Gaza, where the Israeli blockade continues to affect infrastructure, livelihoods and morale, the situation has become worse in the course of 2013, after closure – on the Egyptian side - of the tunnels through which goods were smuggled into the Strip and which offered the people of Gaza some relief. The UN has called the Israeli settlements and Israeli blockade illegal - as they are. To no avail: with every year that passes, their impact on Palestinian lives becomes harsher; for young Palestinians, they define a very bleak future.
UNRWA continues to support refugees through a network of schools, clinics and social protection measures. However, UNRWA is facing increasing financial problems: its core budget (which supports education and health) has a shortage of almost US$ 70m this year; in Gaza, where half of the population depends on food handouts and emergency employment, these humanitarian programmes face a shortfall of US$ 20 to 25m; and the emergency needs of Palestinians affected by the war in Syria continue to grow: we estimate them at US$ 420m for 2014.
Your focus is on aid to Palestine, on investment, on building capacity. This is a priority and we fully support Prime Minister Hamdallah’s call for more efforts by the international community. On my side, let me stress how important it is not to neglect Palestine refugees. They are part of the Palestinian nation and they are especially vulnerable. We must of course salute renewed efforts to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and the determination of Secretary Kerry. We believe that supporting refugees is an essential contribution to this process, as we want refugees to be positive stakeholders in the future of the region. The opposite, as we have seen too often, is that disenfranchisement of a community undermines the construction of peace.
For the past 64 years, UNRWA has invested in the most precious of Palestinian resources: human capital. It has done so through education, vocational training, preventive health, poverty alleviation and microfinance. But we need support to carry out this mission.
UNRWA is asking donors for US$ 1.5bn in 2014. Needs grow, but unfortunately our donor base remains narrow. I maintain however that Palestine refugees - one of the consequences of a conflict which has global significance - are of global concern themselves, and supporting them must be a burden more widely shared.
This is therefore my key request to you. Asia understands the value of education, vocational training, preventive health. I started my career as a young refugee official in Southeast Asia, a region which is historically familiar with refugee crises and with the importance of ensuring that political solutions which address these crises are adequately supported by economic investment. In this country, Indonesia, and in the region at large, solidarity with Palestine is strong. Conditions are thus favourable, I believe, for increased support to Palestinians - including through UNRWA - in this region. Japan is one of our top ten donors and a key and trusted partner. Malaysia, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea have increased their contributions.
Last year’s combined contributions to UNRWA by CEAPAD countries, excluding Japan, were approximately US$ 1m. This is positive but surely more can be done. Because whether you help a refugee child in Gaza not to skip his school lunch, or assist a young woman in Jordan learn the skills to be gainfully employed, you will have made a valuable investment in the future of Palestine, and of the region.