Statement of the Commissioner-General at the Meeting of the UNRWA Advisory Commission

17 June 2014
Statement of the Commissioner-General at the Meeting of the UNRWA Advisory Commission

Amman

Mr Chairman; Mr Vice-Chairman; Distinguished delegates; Colleagues –
 
I would like to begin by thanking His Excellency Moh’d Taisir Bani Yassin, Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, for welcoming us here and for hosting this meeting.  Jordan, which accommodates the largest number of Palestine refugees of all our fields, has been an important partner in supporting their rights and meeting their needs.  I would also like to thank His Excellency Ambassador Mneymneh of Lebanon, Chairman of the UNRWA Advisory Commission, and His Excellency Per Ӧrnĕus of Sweden, the Deputy Chair. I would also like to thank His Excellency Axel Wernhoff, the Consul-General of Sweden, who has so ably led the Subcommittee with the support of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the United Kingdom.
 
I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to members of the Advisory Commission for supporting my appointment in the context of the Secretary-General’s consultation with the Advisory Commission in 2013, and building on this trust and support, I very much look forward to developing a collaborative relationship with all of you during my tenure as Commissioner-General.
 
The presence of honored guests in today’s meeting deserves mention: I am pleased to welcome representatives of Brazil, of Iraq, Qatar and of the United Arab Emirates, to this meeting.  Following notably its recent in-kind contribution of food, we hope to soon receive Brazil as a full member of the Advisory Commission.
 
Thanks are also due to all my colleagues for their guidance over the course of my induction to this post, and, I want to express first and foremost sincere appreciation to Filippo Grandi for his invaluable advice on how to fulfill the office that he held so ably the last years.  And I continue to rely on the Deputy Commissioner-General, Margot Ellis, for valued on-going counsel on challenges facing the Agency, and on efforts to achieve our strategic objectives.
 
The challenges we face and the objectives we have are formidable. In addressing them, I truly look forward to the seeing the UNRWA Advisory Commission continue playing its key role to “advise and assist” the Commissioner-General. You all have, through your shared commitment to UNRWA and to UNRWA’s mission, helped forge a relationship of trust and transparency.  Not only is that an important as an accomplishment in itself, it is also a critical pre-requisite to working together effectively to the greatest benefit of Palestine refugees.  
 
It has already been mentioned that this is the first time that the opening session of the Advisory Commission is being streamed live on our website: www.unrwa.org.  So let me move on to say the following. 
 
I am truly honored to be here with you for my first session with the Advisory Commission. This meeting is particularly welcome and timely in that it offers me an important opportunity, early in my tenure, to share some of my first impressions and to learn more about the views and expectations of the host governments and donors regarding UNRWA’s mandate and the strategies required to effectively implement it. 
 
My very first priority upon joining the Agency was to actively visit all of the UNRWA fields of operation, in order to observe firsthand the diverse and complex conditions in which Palestine refugee communities live, to get to know my colleagues in UNRWA – my national colleagues and my international colleagues – and to hold first meetings with respective host governments as well as with representatives of the international state and donor communities. 
 
At the outset, let me emphasize that I have found this phase both deeply enriching and stimulating. I have been impressed by the passion, energy and creativity that exist inside UNRWA teams, often working under very difficult conditions. 
 
Turning to some of my initial impressions, I will focus on both the situation of the Palestine refugees, on our impact for these communities, as well as on the state of UNRWA itself and on some of the most essential priorities we intend to focus on in the coming months and years.
 
From my first visits to Palestine, both West Bank and Gaza, to Syria, to Lebanon and to Jordan and from my discussions with refugees and UNRWA colleagues, a powerful sense has emerged of the sheer unsustainability of the situation of Palestine refugees. I mean this in overall human terms, from social and economic perspectives to the dimension of human rights, security and dignity. I will leave the detailed presentations of the respective contexts to the Field Directors but let me illustrate in a few words what I mean and found particularly striking.
 
The unsustainability is evident and apparent in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and in Gaza. For over 46 years now Palestine refugees in the West Bank, now approximately 750,000, have lived under Israeli military occupation. Their lives are defined by and captive to a regime and system of elaborate movement restrictions, land expropriations, settlement expansion and other practices, such as regular military incursions and use of live ammunition, that makes their daily situations deeply insecure and unpredictable.
 
In Gaza, the unsustainability is measured by the continued downward spiral that the population of the Strip is confronted with. The statistic that perhaps struck me most since taking office is the tenfold increase of refugees needing food assistance in Gaza, from some 80,000 in the year 2000 to over 800,000 today. The population has nowhere to go and unemployment is over 40 %; for young people it is 65%, one of the highest in the world for this particular demographic group, and 80 % for women. I am not referring here to people who do not wish to work or do not have the skills. There are people today receiving food assistance that ran businesses employing dozens of people only a few years ago. Adding to the intolerable conditions faced by the people of Gaza, water resources are running out and the aquifer will have been fully contaminated within the next couple of years.
 
This downward spiral of de-development is man-made and results principally from the illegal blockade imposed on Gaza for the past eight years.  For Gaza’s 1.7 million people, of which 72% are refugees, every aspect of life has been affected. These effects have also been visible for UNRWA itself. In 2013 alone, UNRWA incurred almost seven million US Dollars of additional costs resulting from procedures imposed by Israeli authorities, for the import of materials into Gaza. This is the equivalent of building four schools or distributing food for 6 weeks in Gaza. UNRWA recognizes Israel’s legitimate security considerations and insists that actions endangering the lives of civilians should cease; UNRWA also strongly insists that the collective punishment of the population of Gaza must stop. It is a question of dignity, of human rights and humanitarian law, and of regional stability and security. I will shortly be visiting Egypt where I will discuss with senior Government officials the situation in Gaza, including Rafah crossing. 
 
The pause in the dialogue for peace is often described as a return to a “status quo”. This expression suggests an unchanged situation on the ground and is as such misleading. Indeed, it conceals an ongoing process of dispossession suffered by Palestinians, who day-after-day are deprived of rights that many take for granted. This includes the loss of livelihoods, land and homes. It also includes the tearing of the fabric of Palestinian society, when families cannot move freely to visit, work and build their individual and collective future. While UNRWA has no role in the peace process itself or in the definition of political solutions, it has repeatedly advocated for a just and lasting solution to the plight of Palestine refugees within a future peace agreement.
 
I would like here to express my strong appreciation for the early dialogue and constructive meetings with the Palestinian leadership; I look forward to ongoing and fruitful cooperation. The appointment of the new government of national consensus offers an opportunity that the UN and UNRWA wish to be supportive of. And I urge all in the international community to act swiftly and decisively to help improve the situation, in particular in Gaza. This is not the time for wait-and-see options. Jobs need to be created and an impact must be felt very soon. These are important topics on which I have started a dialogue and will seek to continue to discuss also with Israeli officials.
 
The unsustainability of Palestine refugee conditions is also deeply apparent in Syria. During my visit a few weeks ago, I was confronted with the reality of yet another generation of Palestinians experiencing the trauma of displacement. The sense of loss, despair and fear – for survival and for the future – was palpable. In meetings with Palestine refugees that had fled the fighting in Yarmouk and other camps, I heard the pain expressed by one family after another resulting from the loss of relatives, friends, homes, livelihoods and the achievements built up over two to three generations. The overall conflict in Syria continues to have catastrophic consequences, for Syrians and for Palestine refugees. Again, this is a situation that is man-made and results from widespread military operations, often in densely populated areas and disrespect for some of the most fundamental rules of international humanitarian law. The symbolism of Yarmouk and its physical destruction has been visible for all to see. The psychological damage to the population is something more hidden and yet it will take decades to repair.
 
We estimate that over 50% of the 550,000 Palestine refugees in Syria have been displaced by the fighting. Over 52,000 are estimated to have crossed into Lebanon, 14,000 into Jordan and a few thousands into Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Gaza and Europe. Many of those remaining in Syria have experienced internal displacement. While there has been progress in terms of overall UNRWA access since the beginning of 2014 and better service delivery, much more is needed in particular in terms of sustained access and wider deliveries of food, hygiene material and medical supplies.
 
Our critical imperative is to help save lives and support the resilience of Palestine refugees in Syria by ensuring a continuation of education, health, relief and social services alongside a robust humanitarian response. We are thankful to the Government of Syria for effectively and consistently sustaining Palestine refugees over the last six decades and its ongoing readiness to facilitate UNRWA operations under the present trying circumstances. 
 
We will continue to press for unimpeded access for food, medicine and other supplies and to appeal to the Government of Syria and other parties, including armed groups, to demonstrate respect for and compliance with international legal obligations. On these issues, I am committed to an ongoing open and meaningful dialogue with the Syrian authorities.
 
In Lebanon, there is a sense of frustration and in some cases despair among the Palestine refugee communities, resulting largely from economic marginality in which they have lived since 1948, but also from more recent traumas such as the continued displacement of many of Nahr El-Bared’s residents since 2007. This was further reinforced by the effects of the inflow of Palestine refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. And I wish to reiterate UNRWA’s genuine recognition for the generosity of the Government of Lebanon in welcoming large numbers of refugees from Syria in addition to hosting significant numbers of Palestine refugees. Lebanon’s admission of refugees should be actively supported by the international community. 
 
We also wish to recognize and acknowledge the generous welcome by Jordan of Syrian refugees over the past years.  As mentioned earlier, this comes in addition to Jordan looking after the largest number of Palestine refugees.   
 
At the same time, as I have done in meetings with respective authorities in Lebanon and Jordan, I must again express our deep concern for the specific vulnerability of Palestine refugees from Syria. They are refugees for the  second or third time and we should recognize that more needs to be done to assist and protect them.  They should not be facing so many stringent restrictions or such limitations to their flight options in the region.  And I renew my call for all states to respect the rights of Palestinian refugees to safe refuge, for borders to be kept open to them, and for refraining from deportations back to Syria, in light of the current context. Again, we have deep understanding of the enormous burdens faced by countries in the Middle East region hosting Syrian refugees in large numbers. However, Palestinians remain a large and highly vulnerable group of refugees in need of support, who have access to UNRWA services while temporarily residing in Lebanon and Jordan and therefore do not represent a direct service burden for the countries concerned.
 
Once again, allow me to emphasize how untenable the situation of Palestine refugee communities has become in a region dominated by active conflict, ongoing occupation and blockade and an absence of a political solution between Palestine and Israel. 65 years after UNRWA was created, the Palestine refugees increasingly speak about facing an existential threat at the very moment when a multiplicity of crises in the world – from Syria to Iraq, from Ukraine to South Sudan – contribute to a risk of their fate being overlooked or considered an old story. Neglecting their plight is a risk that the world cannot take. 
 
Mr Chairman; Mr Vice-Chairman; dear Colleagues
 
Since assuming my post on 30 March, I have not only seen how desperate the situation of Palestine refugees is. I have also seen another, more uplifting, side of the Palestine refugee history and been deeply impressed by the extensive and frankly extraordinary human development of hundreds of thousands of refugees made possible by their own self-affirming determination and pride, by UNRWA’s consistent and remarkable engagement and by your outstanding and continuous support.
 
It truly does not go without saying that tens of thousands of qualified education and health personnel provide such extensive services in all of UNRWA’s fields , year after year. To have achieved some of the highest literacy levels in the Middle-East, to have an equal split between boys and girls in UNRWA schools, to have an active education reform being implemented, as well as to have achieved  extraordinary results in terms of reducing child and maternal mortality rates across the region, to see the family health teams being successfully deployed across the region and to observe how some of the UNRWA medical staff are being eagerly sought by the health systems in the wider Middle-East, are formidable achievements. And I could add many examples in the fields of relief and social services, camp improvement and microfinance. It does not go without saying either that UNRWA has been able to continually adapt to the pressures of combining long-term development programs with emergency humanitarian activities in crises like Gaza, during the Intifada or currently in Syria where I was impressed to see some of the inventiveness displayed by my colleagues to work around the many dangers and constraints in the context.
 
I wish to pay tribute here to the support received from host governments to UNRWA’s role and to our donors represented here and some not represented here, who have shown such a commitment to a dynamic of development in our areas of operation, a contribution all the more remarkable in a region grappling – for so long – with major conflicts and their many consequences.  As partners with a continuing interest in the success of this mandate, we must remain dedicated to sustaining it. We must continue our efforts not only to preserve the livelihoods and prospects of Palestine refugees but to preserve and further develop the investments made in human capabilities that many countries around the world, I am convinced, would envy.  . 
 
While, based on the needs assessments that we carry out and the circumstances that we face, we will keep pushing for more means, I wish to state clearly here that we acknowledge the strength of your support and value it greatly. We do not take the large amounts of funding you provide for granted – far from it, we recognize the generous, voluntary nature of your support as a foundation on which the well-being of the refugees rests.  As such, we are conscious of our responsibility to make the best possible use of the money we receive.
 
Likewise, I seize this opportunity to emphasize how important it is not to take what UNRWA does for granted. Let me describe one dimension – alluded to earlier, and not necessarily always well known – of what it means for my colleagues to operate in the Syrian context currently. 80% of our 4,000 national colleagues are displaced themselves and yet go to work every day to assist others in need. 12 UNRWA colleagues have been killed since the conflict began and we currently have 25 missing. I must tell you, and I speak from experience, that I know of no other international agency that would continue operating after so many losses and with so many colleagues unaccounted for. I want here to pay the deepest of tributes to the courage and perseverance of UNRWA staff in Syria and in other delicate security environments in the region. I also remain deeply concerned about  their safety and security.
 
When combining the pressures on the Palestine refugees with the achievements we have seen over several decades, I am confident in saying that UNRWA’s contribution to human development, to addressing emergency needs and to stability remains as important as ever. It is, accordingly, with a strong sense of purpose that I shall do everything possible as Commissioner-General to ensure that we are able to continue assuming our role and carrying our activities forward.  
 
At this point, let me turn to some of the key priorities that we are internally focusing on to precisely ensure that UNRWA is, and will continue to be, able to make a difference to the lives of Palestine refugees.
 
The very first of these priorities is the Agency’s Medium-Term strategy for 2016 to 2021. You have received a copy of our first draft. My colleague Robert Hurt will provide a more extensive overview of where we currently are in the development of the strategy as well as of some of the next steps. Let me briefly outline what I see as some of the essential dimensions of the MTS.
 
We are engaged in this strategy development to ensure a common understanding within UNRWA and with you as hosts and donors of what the situation of Palestine refugees is and how we expect it to evolve over the coming 5 to 7 years. It will serve to give a sense of where the greatest needs are and what the scope and expected quality of services provided by UNRWA will be. It also identifies 5 major outcomes that will structure UNRWA’s work, provide a sense of clarity and focus and ensure a certain amount of consistency across the fields while allowing at the same time a degree of adaptation to specific local circumstances.
 
Based on the consultations that we have already conducted, and on the advice we will receive from you in this Advisory Commission meeting, as well as taking into account what will emerge from the Human Development Study and, importantly, from the Agency Strategic Response Plans for each Field of operation, we will provide further clarity on what the biggest needs are, on what UNRWA is specifically capable of doing in terms addressing those needs, on what level of ambition UNRWA will set itself considering a range of realistic funding scenarios, on where UNRWA will focus its attention and what needs will not be met, on what the consequences of unmet needs will be and what the key risks are that UNRWA will be facing and how to manage them.
 
I am encouraged by the work to date and by the feed-backs received from the recent presentation at the sub-committee meeting. Let me indicate what my commitments related to the MTS are:
 
In view of the context I described earlier and the multiplicity of needs and pressures that Palestine refugees face, you should expect an ambitious UNRWA strategy. I am determined to see that we achieve meaningful and credible levels and quality of services.  This will require active engagement inside and across the Agency to think about how to further improve the value and impact of what we do for Palestine refugees.
 
While ambitious, this strategy should also be focused on UNRWA’s center of gravity activities: education, health, relief and social services, camp improvement and micro-finance. Particular attention will be given to designing the adequate responses to the increased poverty challenges we are dealing with, in making our protection activities more consistent and effective, as well as being better able to address specific vulnerabilities by a structured integration of dimensions such as gender, age and disability.
 
In order to be in a position to cover the diversity of needs and to carry out quality activities, we will evidently require significant amounts of financial support. This means a strategy whereby UNRWA at large will engage to preserve and further develop the strong funding relationships we have with our key donors and actively pursue our efforts to broaden the base of countries and private donors prepared to support UNRWA. I will make it a personal priority to invest, with the same determination as Filippo Grandi, in building relations with you and with the donor capitals to obtain the funding UNRWA needs.  The performance of Arab states in recent years is one of the key examples of the results of this approach. 
 
From the very first day I have understood that UNRWA’s mandate is not for sale. I will therefore invest actively on my side and count on your ongoing determination to support us.  At the same time, I wish to state very clearly here that I am determined to pursue the path of internal reforms to ensure that UNRWA continues to improve how it does what it does. This will include further improvements in terms of planning and financial management. It will also include greater consistency in terms of internal resource allocation procedures. We will look at how to simplify and streamline internal decision-making, field-headquarters roles and responsibilities, and seek to identify other efficiencies.
 
I am absolutely determined while approaching the donor community actively for more support and while broadening the base of that donor community to ensure that UNRWA makes its own contribution and decisions to ensuring lasting financial sustainability. From where we stand at present, I am under no illusion and want  to leave no one in this room – or outside – under any illusion about how serious UNRWA’s financial situation is. At this point in time, as you well know, our projected deficit for UNRWA’s General Fund in 2014 lies at 69.1 M US Dollars. While it is only marginally higher than at the same time last year, the situation is in actual fact much more serious. There are several reasons for that including a significantly stronger shekel and VAT which have added important unbudgeted costs and the fact that effective past austerity measures mean that we simply do not have the types of reserves that we could previously work with when the financial situation was difficult. I have already announced to the UNRWA management that we will be taking resolute action in the coming months to try and bridge part of the funding gap. We will take the opportunity of the second quarterly budget review to introduce new measures to reduce the deficit. At the same time, I will be approaching you to obtain additional support to help cover the deficit as well.
 
This is the situation for 2014 and it will require active managing. Then there is the future and here I commit to taking an in-depth look at what needs to be done internally – in addition to approaching donors – to contribute to more budgetary stability in years to come. And I want to emphasize that it will not be about weakening UNRWA’s role or scope of response but it will be about analyzing how we do things and how to better manage some of the costs we generate, and in that regard UNRWA will continue to approach salaries in accordance with the pay policy vis-à-vis the comparator. 
 
To summarize, I am committed to an ambitious UNRWA strategy, to a qualitative set of services, as well as to a strategy with a sense of purpose and focus. I am determined to engage you as hosts and donors to enable us to live up to our commitments. I am convinced that there are partnerships that will strengthen our ability to act. I am also committed to addressing internal choices when they are needed.
 
And a related priority – one absolutely central to UNRWA’s ability to act effectively – is my determination to improve overall staff relations. Every large agency has challenges in this regard but there is no hiding from the opinions shared with me by so many since my arrival: there is a critical need for improvements in this domain. It is essential that an Agency such as UNRWA is able to build on the creativity and competence of all colleagues by developing a sense of trust, inclusion and engagement among staff. As I told colleagues when visiting the fields, I see it as part of my responsibility and that of all senior staff to ensure they are listened to, that their ideas and concerns are built into decision-making processes and that we develop a stronger sense of ownership and participation across the Agency. This will include the way we mobilize and consult senior national colleagues and engage the unions. We have already started identifying measures in this regard and over the coming months you will see the first effects of these actions. Furthermore, we also intend to develop new forms of engagement with the refugees themselves in coming years.
 
In closing, I wish to say once again how passionate and grateful I am for the opportunity to serve UNRWA and, through it, all Palestine refugees.  I look forward to partnership with this Advisory Commission and to developing with all of you a strong and trusted relationship.  Allow me also to say that I approach my tenure as Commissioner-General with a deep sense of humility and responsibility, mindful of the unique role that UNRWA must be enabled to continue playing, in assisting and protecting the Palestine refugees until a just and final resolution of their plight is achieved.
 
Thank you.

Background Information

UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and is mandated to provide assistance and protection to a population of some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip to achieve their full potential in human development, pending a just solution to their plight. UNRWA’s services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and microfinance.

Financial support to UNRWA has not kept pace with an increased demand for services caused by growing numbers of registered refugees, expanding need, and deepening poverty. As a result, the Agency's General Fund (GF), supporting UNRWA’s core activities and 97 per cent reliant on voluntary contributions, has begun each year with a large projected deficit. Currently the deficit stands at US$ 69 million.

For more information, please contact:

Christopher Gunness
UNRWA Spokesperson
Mobile: 
+972 (0)54 240 2659
Office: 
+972 (0)2 589 0267
Sami Mshasha
UNRWA Arabic Spokesperson
Mobile: 
+972 (0)54 216 8295
Office: 
+972 (0)2 589 0724

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