In Adversity, a Need for Renewed Commitment

04 December 2013
UNRWA Pledging Conference
UNRWA Pledging Conference
Speech Delivered by the Deputy Commissioner-General Margot Ellis at the 2014 Pledging Conference

Mme. Acting President of the General Assembly,


Distinguished delegates,

I have the honour today to represent Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi at this year’s Pledging Conference for UNRWA.

To begin, I wish to express my sincere gratitude to the Acting President of the General Assembly and Permanent Representative of Timor-Leste to the United Nations, Ambassador Sofia Mesquita Borges, for chairing this meeting today. I thank you for your supportive introductory remarks and for your enduring support for UNRWA.

At last year’s pledging conference in December, I described 2012 as a year of exceptional challenges for Palestine refugees. 2013 has been marked by further deepening crises in the region affecting all of the UNRWA fields of operations.

I will come to Syria later, but I want to begin with Gaza. Just over a year after an escalation in violence in Gaza that ended in scores of deaths, it is sobering to remind ourselves that the condition of Palestine refugees there remains dire.

Reflecting this deepening deterioration, the number of food-insecure households in Gaza has increased from 44 per cent, in 2011, to 57 per cent, in 2012. The United Nations predicts that by 2020, the scarcity of clean water resources and soaring rates of unemployment will render Gaza uninhabitable. Since the closure of the smuggling tunnel trade with Egypt, which resulted in a sharp decline in the local economy, needs have multiplied exponentially. Gaza remains suffocated by the illegal blockade imposed by the Government of Israel, which has now intensified with the non-admittance of building supplies urgently needed for UNRWA construction projects – to build schools and rehabilitate shelters. Since October, 20 of our projects have been brought to a halt, with a loss of employment for 5,000 Palestine refugees.

However, UNRWA has received some indications recently that the Government of Israel may allow for the import of construction materials into Gaza, in the next few days, by international organizations. UNRWA hopes that this engagement will come through soon. Unfortunately, the non-admittance of building supplies has led to severe setbacks in the economy, which will take time to compensate. The prospect of construction materials being allowed into Gaza is desperately and urgently needed. At the moment, the markets in Gaza are nearly empty, with low levels of economic activity. Prices for basic commodities – food, fuel – are rising sharply. Gazans have become even more dependent on food aid. Over a million people are now dependent on the United Nations – both UNRWA and the World Food Programme – for assistance; 800,000 of them are Palestine refugees falling under our responsibility. Exports, a viable way for Gaza to revive its economy, are at a mere 2 per cent of pre-2007 levels.  If all this were not bad enough, let me underline that needs are not static – the population registered with UNRWA is growing by over 3 per cent each year, so we need more resources to provide our core education, medical and social services to vulnerable refugees.

Turning to the West Bank, allow me to stress that emergency needs are increasing for approximately 750,000 Palestine refugees.  Inhabitants of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, continue to suffer from restrictions on their rights and access to their land imposed by the Government of Israel. The expansion of settlements – and growing settler violence – is affecting many in the West Bank, in particular the Bedouin community, most of whom are Palestine refugees, and is a constant physical reminder of their 65-year plight. Bedouins face grave threats of displacement, particularly the 2,300 of them currently in Area C and E1.

Violence has also spread to Palestine refugee camps in the West Bank. An UNRWA staff member recently lost his life during an Israeli military operation in Kalandia. UNRWA is alarmed by the substantial increase in the use of live ammunition by the Israel Defense Forces in refugee camps this year compared with 2012, which has led to at least 40 Palestine refugees being wounded.  The occupation remains the most devastating impediment to the development of the Palestine refugee community in the West Bank.

This year, UNRWA appealed to the international community for US$ 300 million for emergency support for Gaza and the West Bank. Regrettably, only 42 per cent of it was funded. We understand the phenomenon of donor fatigue, coupled with the fact that other crises, such as Syria and the natural disaster in the Philippines, have absorbed funding streams that might have been dedicated to UNRWA. However, I must underline that more people are food insecure in Gaza – not fewer. And with increased poverty and higher unemployment rates, the demands for UNRWA health, relief and education services only grow. Next year, UNRWA will again put forward an appeal for emergency aid for Gaza and the West Bank. We trust that you will do your utmost to fully fund these important services.

Let me turn now to the tragedy unfolding in Syria, which has severely impacted Palestine refugees as it reverberates across the region. It has turned into one of the most profoundly complex emergencies that UNRWA has faced.

Since the start of the conflict in March 2011, UNRWA has suffered the tragic loss of nine staff members. The latest fatality, Mohammad Suheil Yousef Awwad, died on 24 November, when a mortar shell struck his vehicle in Ghouta, a suburb south-east of Damascus City. He is survived by his wife and two teenage children. I would like to use this opportunity to commend the tremendous courage of our staff in Syria – all 3,500 of them – who continue serving their community by providing life-saving support such as food, non-food items (NFIs), education and health services, often in extremely dangerous circumstances.

The conflict is inevitably taking a toll on the Agency’s ability to deliver these services. UNRWA estimates that already, 59 of its 180 installations in Syria have been damaged due to fighting, and, unfortunately, more destruction is likely to come.  Education has been disrupted – with one third of Palestine refugee children not able to attend school, the crisis is robbing children of their right to an education. This is one of the tragedies of the Syrian conflict.

Many of you are aware of the situation in Yarmouk, once the home of approximately 160,000 Palestinians in Damascus. During my visit to Syria earlier this year, I was able to meet families receiving aid from UNRWA at Zahera food distribution centre just outside of Yarmouk. It is there that I witnessed the tragic impact of the conflict on the lives of Palestine refugees. I met mothers with their newborns and children, struggling to survive. I met families who had lost loved ones, and elderly people who, now dependent on UNRWA for such aid, felt that their pride and self-esteem were being compromised. Today, UNRWA is continuing to press Syrian authorities and other parties to gain access to those who are trapped in the camp. We know that the situation inside Yarmouk is dire, and our concerns are heightened by reports of instances of starvation.  We call on all parties to allow our convoys to reach those in need.

Other parts of Rif Damascus – such as the Sbeineh and Khan Eshieh camps, and the area of Husseinieh – have also become battlegrounds.  On a more positive note, we are pleased that in Qabr Essit, a camp in rural Damascus that saw heavy fighting for many months, the situation has improved enough for some displaced Palestine refugees to return and for UNRWA to offer services and humanitarian assistance inside the camp. UNRWA has repeatedly deplored all forms of violence and reiterated its appeal to all parties to comply with their obligations under international law and in line with the UN Security Council Presidential Statement of 2 October.

The seemingly unrelenting violence in Syria has forced approximately 50,000 Palestine refugees to flee to Lebanon, a country overwhelmed by the tidal flow of refugees from Syria now amounting to nearly a quarter of its population. For Palestine refugees from Syria, Lebanon has, in effect, been their only ‘flight option’. We commend the Lebanese government for its efforts in broadly keeping the border open, although, since August, access has become more difficult for Palestine refugees.  The arrivals from Syria have joined the nearly 300,000 Palestine refugees normally resident in Lebanon, whose life prospects are severely constrained by their lack of access to the labour market.

Another priority is to ensure that the remaining 17,000 Palestine refugees displaced from Nahr el-Bared in 2007 are able to return to the camp. The relatively low funding for Nahr el-Bared, however, prevents UNRWA from completing the construction. I therefore must urge you to provide funding for the reconstruction of the camp and the temporary relief services offered to the displaced during the reconstruction period. I cannot emphasize enough how important the stability of Nahr el-Bared is in the context of the already fragile situation in Lebanon.

Jordan is the home of approximately 2 million Palestine refugees, the largest number in the five UNRWA fields of operations. The Agency commends the hospitality of Jordan for having hosted millions of Palestinians since 1948. In the spirit of that tradition of hospitality and cooperation, UNRWA has urged Jordan on many occasions to reconsider its current policy and to allow Palestinians fleeing Syria to enter Jordan for safety. All Palestine refugees from Syria currently in Jordan – some 10,500 – should be permitted to stay, if necessary under a temporary residence-permit scheme, which UNRWA has offered to negotiate with the Jordanian authorities. For our part, we are committed to maintaining regular education, health and relief services while ensuring that the protection needs of Palestine refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria are met.

It would be remiss of me not to thank you all for your generosity towards the UNRWA regional appeal for Syria and neighbouring countries for 2013, totalling US$ 290 million. UNRWA has, so far, received 72 per cent of the funding it needs overall, although only 50 per cent towards needs inside Syria. Inevitably, needs in 2014 will rise further. We are currently working with United Nations colleagues to draw up a comprehensive regional plan that will address humanitarian needs while also seeking to promote resilience and support for host communities in Lebanon, Jordan and other neighbouring countries that have incurred huge costs in assisting the refugee population.

I have shared with you this sobering overview of the challenging situation of Palestine refugees in all five UNRWA fields of operations. Despite these grave adversities, however, UNRWA has ensured that programme reform is implemented and consultative planning for the medium-term strategy undertaken as a matter of priority. The reforms in the areas of education and health have yielded positive results that directly affect the lives of Palestinians. The family health team approach has meant that more time is given by UNRWA doctors to their patients, which ensures that individual needs are better and more efficiently addressed.  The education reform seeks to ensure that Palestine refugee children are better prepared for the new realities and demands of the twenty-first century.

Work is now well underway on developing the UNRWA Medium-Term Strategy (MTS) for 2016-2021. This offers an opportunity for UNRWA to strengthen the quality of its service delivery. Taking account of the Agency’s financial situation, many difficult decisions on core and ancillary services will need to be made. The blueprint of the MTS has already been shared with donors, and it will now be further developed to support the Agency in remaining focused on its main goals: providing human development and assistance to Palestine refugees while addressing, in a more systemic and holistic way, measures to more effectively mitigate poverty.

UNRWA is in the challenging position, therefore, of pushing forwards with necessary reforms in a situation of tremendous financial insecurity. The overall funding situation remains dire, if not desperate: Despite the implementation of stringent austerity measures, the Agency still has an estimated cash shortfall of US$ 36 million this year. UNRWA has appealed urgently to all of its donors for enhanced support to address the cash shortfall. In this context, during the United Nations General Assembly in September, the Agency organized, under the auspices of the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, a meeting to draw attention to UNRWA needs and to urge Arab states to fulfil their own engagement to fund 7.8 per cent of the UNRWA General Fund. If this target were met, our finances would be on a much more stable footing.

In the meantime, UNRWA continues to rely on support from its major donors – in particular the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Australia, which rank in the top 10. We are profoundly grateful for the support of all Member States contributing to UNRWA. The Agency’s resource mobilization efforts, led by outgoing Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi, have expanded to new regions and countries with a view to broadening the donor base and enhancing support for UNRWA. The Commissioner-General has engaged with governments in Latin America, Asia and other parts of the world, and we hope that the Agency will soon reap the fruit of its outreach efforts. Building new partnerships with the private and public sectors is also at the centre of the UNRWA resource mobilization strategy, but these take time to develop, and even more time to bear fruit.

For 2014, we have developed a core budget of US$ 687 million, with nearly zero growth. Unfortunately, we already anticipate a cash shortfall of 10 per cent, or US$ 65 million. I cannot stress enough that ‘core’ means the basic services that you, members of the General Assembly, have asked us to provide – including education, health and relief and social services – to Palestine refugees.

Distinguished Delegates,

Despite the multiple challenges I have outlined, UNRWA remains focused on its number one priority: fulfilling its General Assembly mandate to support Palestine refugees. Our work must continue until a just and durable solution to the plight of Palestine refugees is found in accordance with United Nations resolutions.

The renewed peace talks on the Arab-Israeli conflict offer a glimmer of hope for the aspirations of Palestinians that their tragic plight will one day come to an end. Until then, our ability to serve Palestine refugees will remain dependent on the generosity of Member States, donors and host communities, who, together with UNRWA, bear the collective responsibility of supporting Palestine refugees. Neither the environment in which we operate nor the needs of the increasing Palestine refugee population are static. Just as UNRWA has remained steadfast in our support to Palestine refugees for six decades, we commit ourselves to continue to do so until a just resolution to their plight is found, but our ability to do so rests in your hands.

Thank you.

Background Information: 

UNRWA is confronted with an increased demand for services resulting from a growth in the number of registered Palestine refugees, the extent of their vulnerability and their deepening poverty. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions and financial support has been outpaced by the growth in needs. As a result, the UNRWA programme budget, which supports the delivery of core essential services, operates with a large shortfall. UNRWA encourages all Member States to work collectively to exert all possible efforts to fully fund the Agency’s programme budget. UNRWA emergency programmes and key projects, also operating with large shortfalls, are funded through separate funding portals. UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5.4 million Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA across its five fields of operation. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, protection and microfinance.