Commissioner-General’s statement: Special Political and Decolonization Committee

14 November 2018
Commissioner-General’s statement: Special Political and Decolonization Committee

New York, 9 November 2018

Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure for me to present my annual report to the General Assembly on UNRWA’s work for Palestine refugees in the Near East. 

As per established practice, while the written report before you describes trends and events in 2017, my presentation will update you about significant developments in 2018.

Delegations here know how dramatic this year has been for UNRWA and how sudden and unprecedented were the challenges to our work on the ground and at the very outset of my presentation, I wish to emphasize that we have addressed these challenges with resolve and creativity.

We are on the path to overcoming the greatest financial predicament ever in the history of this Agency, and to a very large extent this has been possible because you - the Member States of the General Assembly - rose to the occasion. Your support has been truly remarkable.

Palestine refugees have experienced great loss and suffering over the past 70 years. Your lasting commitment to their human development and the preservation of opportunities - pending a just and lasting solution - remains invaluable. It is essential to human dignity, to regional stability and preservation of strong and engaged multilateralism.


Before turning to UNRWA, I would like to share some observations about Palestine refugees in Gaza and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. They are a diverse community in a fragmented region, bound by a common identity shaped by a shared dispossession and the unresolved political circumstances at the heart of their prolonged refugee-hood.

In much of our operating area, humanitarian conditions have been grave and in many ways critical.  Palestine refugees were deeply marked by the effects of ongoing conflict, exacerbated by the lack of political progress, the announcements on Jerusalem and pressures on UNRWA’s funding and operations. There is an overwhelming sense of existential crisis among Palestine refugees.

In Gaza, they have been joining the “Great March” to the border with Israel, where the use of armed force has injured more Palestinians than during the entire 50-day war in 2014.  Gaza’s people, over two-thirds of them refugees, are waking up to the reality that thousands of youth will carry debilitating injuries for years to come.  Medical treatment outside is restricted and inside Gaza, the public medical system is in a state of near collapse.

Having visited Gaza on over 30 separate occasions since assuming my position in March 2014, I increasingly struggle to find the right words to describe the depth of despair resulting from the combination of conflict, occupation and blockade in the Strip. 13 (one three) young boys and girls, studying in UNRWA schools, have been killed during the “Marches” this year.

And you are familiar with the fact that I do not like to limit myself to statistics. Allow me therefore to name these students:

  • Yasser, 11 years old
  • Shadi, 11
  • Majdi, 11
  • Ezzedine, 13 years old
  • Mohammed, 14
  • Zakaria, 14
  • Hussain, 14 years old
  • Mohammad, 14 years old
  • Wessal, 14 a female student in our schools in Gaza
  • Alaa, 15
  • Muath, 15 years old
  • Jamal, 15
  • Sadi, 16 years old

all lost their lives this year in Gaza.

With this in mind, your commitment to our services is essential. And I can simply not imagine what would happen if the 280,000 – 280,000 girls and boys in our schools in Gaza would not have their right to education guaranteed. There is simply no alternative to UNRWA’s school system in the Gaza Strip.

In the West Bank, the threat of forced displacement hangs over many communities, symbolized by the Bedouin hamlet of Khan Al Ahmar on the outskirts of East Jerusalem.  Demolition of Khan Al Ahmar is imminent. Access to the essentials of life, to employment, to assets, to family, and to East Jerusalem, is precarious and insecure.

Confronted with the all-pervasive effects of occupation, Palestine refugees in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have in UNRWA, the only consistent and dedicated service provider concerned about their preservation and the preservation of their well-being and dignity.

In Yarmouk Camp in Syria, years of brutal siege have given way to mass destruction this year, and most of the 160,000 Palestine refugees who once called Yarmouk home have nothing to return to.  In the North, in Idlib, the security situation is grave and we are concerned about the 6,000 Palestine refugee families who are inaccessible and at risk.

In Syria as well, we endured the painful loss of students. Six of them were killed by mortar and gunfire in the course of 2018. Here again I wish to name them:

  • Aya, 12 years old
  • Mohammad, 13 years old
  • Qusai, 14 years old
  • Bahaa, 15
  • Abd al-Ghafour, 15 years old
  • Mohammad, 15 years old

In Lebanon, refugees remain cut off from government services, from most formal employment.  Poverty is driving them into despair, and some once more are taking the risk to flee; in September, a boat with migrants capsized while making the dangerous journey to Europe by sea.

Among the dead a young Palestine refugee, 5 year old young Khaled.

In Jordan where refugees have experienced broad inclusion, vulnerabilities nevertheless run deep in many communities. Many rely on UNRWA for services and the most basic assistance to alleviate poverty; in the most extreme cases, persons displaced from Gaza look to us for daily needs.

From these limited examples, you will get a strong feeling for the sense of isolation and abandonment that defines Palestine refugees in so many ways. It would however be incorrect to limit them to an identity of victim-hood.

There is great strength and creativity among Palestine refugees. And we see it in our student community, among women who start small-businesses in our Micro-Finance program, as well as among dedicated staff members, delivering our services on some of the region’s most difficult frontlines.

In this very difficult context, with refugee needs and vulnerabilities at the highest level UNRWA has seen in decades, the Agency was forced to contend with a massive shock.  In January of this year $300 million in funding was cut, following an abrupt decision by our largest single donor to scale down its support to $60 million in 2018. The United States has since announced that it will not contribute any funds as of 2019. 

And I have said it before and I wish to repeat it here: first of all that the US has historically been a formidable funder of UNRWA. While recognizing that funding a humanitarian organization remains a sovereign decision and underlining how generous and consistent the US’ support to UNRWA has been over decades, I do regret the decision to end its funding precisely because it had been such an important partnership.

The resulting financial crisis has been unprecedented and as of mid-January we recorded a shortfall of $446 million, truly staggering for an agency that provides essential services on which millions rely every day, in unstable environments and with no viable alternatives. 

Equivalent to 40% of our operating income, the shortfall threatened our entire service system in and around 58 camps in the region.  And when I speak of the service system I am referring to:

  • general education for 525,000 student boys and girl in our schools, deemed by the World Bank a “global public good”. 
  • essential primary health care for some 3 million patients, including maternal and child care, through a network of 140 clinics and health centers delivering health outcomes equivalent to middle income countries with a per capita health spend that is closer to low-income countries. 
  • food assistance to 1.7 million refugees in complex emergencies such as Gaza, but also Syria, where we were reaching 95% of targeted beneficiaries – considered by our UN partners to be the most effective intervention of its kind in the Syrian conflict.


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Coming face to face with a suspension of operations has been exceptionally difficult for the Agency, given the responsibilities we carry on your behalf to assist and protect the refugees, and the tensions felt by 30,000 of our staff serving in highly polarized settings. 

However, we were determined not to sit back and complain, and we launched a global campaign called #DignityIsPriceless, bringing about renewed spirit of multilateral cooperation. The collective mobilization was deeper and broader than we have seen in decades, accompanied by diplomatic engagement at the highest levels. 

Two ministerial meetings were key to mobilizing support, with $100 million pledged in Rome on 15 March and $122 million in New York on September 27, in the context of a special session on UNRWA here on the margins of the General Assembly.  In this regard, Jordan’s diplomatic energy, as co-Chair of both meetings and Host to the largest number of registered Palestine refugees, is here duly recognized. I wish also to thank Sweden, Egypt, Turkey, Japan and Germany, as well as the European Union for their important co-Chair roles in these two events as well.

Overall, since January donors contributed or pledged an additional $382 million, bringing our shortfall down to $64 million, which is the current state of affairs. There is a gap that remains to be filled before the year comes to a close. Though it is in comparison now a modest, or more modest gap, it is money we don’t have but will need for essential expenditures that otherwise they will be added to our 2019 shortfall.

We are currently in contact – and this is good news – with several countries, who have given indications of additional contributions. And I will be updating the Advisory Commission of UNRWA in 10 days and am hopeful that the shortfall will have been further reduced by then.

My message today to you, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, is about how far we have come. And what it says about the international community’s efforts to enable our fulfilment of the mandate given to us by the General Assembly.  We are doing our part to preserve effectiveness of the multilateral aid system against growing threats.

Throughout the year the Secretary-General has stood with UNRWA and I pay tribute to him for his extraordinary outreach efforts. I wish also to express deep appreciation to the EU’s High Representative, and to the Secretaries-General of the League of Arab States, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, for their roles in the positive results achieved.

Four of our Arab partners showed true humanitarian leadership; Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait raised $50 million each. They account for 50% of the additional sum pledged this year.   Led by Saudi Arabia, our Arab partners have been among the most generous donors in recent years, focusing on infrastructure and emergency appeals. In response to the current crisis they increased funding substantially for core activities; sustaining this performance is indispensable to our operational stability moving forward.

Over the past twelve months, 40 (four zero) countries and institutions increased their contributions to UNRWA, from every regional grouping.

Our Host governments took action, one of them increasing direct support by the largest magnitude of any donor.  Let’s recall host governments already assume extraordinary responsibilities – economic, political, social, among others – for accommodating Palestine refugees.

We also count 10 Asian Member States either as new donors this year for 2018, or as existing partners who are giving up to 10 times more to UNRWA this year. 

Support from BRICS governments has more than doubled in 2018, driven by African and Asian members.

Three permanent members of the Security Council are stepping up generous support by a wide margin.

Two Latin American governments doubled their support for UNRWA.

European donors were extremely generous as well.  Their increase in 2018 was second only to our Arab partners.  I want to include here the important support from Canada in this regard. Emerging donors from Eastern Europe are a welcome component of this increase as well.

And I will also be highlighting to the Advisory Commission in 10 days - and therefore do it here today to you - that important pledges made throughout the year have however not yet been disbursed. And it is essential that this happen very swiftly.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I wish to continue by saying without hesitation that UNRWA has its own responsibilities in the collective effort to achieve financial health and stability. One of the responsibilities, which I know is a priority for our closest stakeholders, is efficiency and financial discipline. It is a priority for me, my Deputy Sandra Mitchell and the management team. And we are, as you know well, an operational agency reliant on voluntary funding, so we put this into practice every day in our planning, management and delivery. 

For example, our shortfall this year, as I mentioned, of $446 million would have reached $538 million, if not for rigid controls applied to our 2018 budget.  I assure you that stripping out $92 million was not an easy task, but that’s what we did.  And I have also reported to the Secretary-General that between 2015 and 2017 we had fast-tracked difficult reforms, enforced austerity Agency-wide, and saved $197 million.  Refugee needs were rising, so were operating costs, but we avoided service cuts. And I can think of no other humanitarian organization, I say to you humbly, doing the same in similar circumstances.

And I appreciate the recognition of stakeholders, many of them in this room, notably major donors, for the efficiencies we have achieved and the value of our continuing efforts in that regard. You can count on my steadfast determination in the future to continue with such measures on our side as well.

I would now like to turn our attention to a set of institutional issues that continue preoccupying UNRWA and its stakeholders. And your presence allows me to review and seek to clarify them.

Increasingly, a number of assertions about Palestine refugees have been raised in the media and various political forums. Stakeholders have also raised them during my visits to donor capitals, and in the region.  And I have valued and continue to value the opportunity to discuss and address questions, concerns and criticisms.   

One of the assertions is that only UNRWA registers the children and grandchildren of refugees and their descendants, in contrast to UNHCR, it is said. And we are at times described as (I quote) “inflating” (end of quote) the number of Palestine refugees.  

Ladies and gentlemen, these are simply straighforward misrepresentations.  There is sadly nothing unique about the protracted nature of the Palestine refugee situation, giving rise to successive generations who remain displaced. The fact is, children born to refugees, and their descendants, are recognized as refugees by both UNRWA and UNHCR under their respective mandates. Refugees from places like Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, and Congo, have been displaced for decades and, naturally, continued to raise families in the countries hosting them.  Their descendants were recognized as refugees and assisted as such by UNHCR, until lasting solutions were found.

UNRWA is also described as (I quote) “perpetuating” (end of quote) the Palestine refugee question, by calling – this is the assertion – for a return to their place of origin. UNHCR is presented, by contrast, as finding solutions by resettling refugees in third countries.   

Let me be clear: UNHCR has a mandate to seek solutions, whether through a return of refugees or resettlement; UNRWA does not.  The preferred solution for all refugees under international law is voluntary return, in safety and dignity, a position taken by the international community for over six decades.

In this context, allow me to draw your attention to the note entitled, “Protection of Palestine Refugees,” which was approved by the Secretary-General and which has been made available to you, we have copies for you at the back of the room, this note clarifies a number of issues in this debate.

What I find disturbing is the notion that Palestine refugees are a “problem”, or an “obstacles”, in the search for Middle East peace, as if they are responsible for the unresolved conflict, or can be disregarded.  We are talking about a community of people, men, women and children, who have experienced extremes of violence, suffering, and injustice. 

No matter how often attempts are made to minimize or delegitimize individual and collective experiences of Palestine refugees, the undeniable fact remains that they have rights under international law and cannot simply be wished away.

The responsibility for the continuing situation and conflict lies squarely with the parties and in the international community’s lack of will or utter inability to bring about a negotiated and peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.  

Before concluding my remarks, there are two further issues that merit consideration. 

The first is the Palestinian curriculum used in UNRWA schools in Gaza and in the West Bank.  For over 20 years Palestinian textbooks have come under scrutiny on a regular basis, with a focus on content relating to Israeli-Palestinian peace.  UNRWA reviews the textbooks against a number of criteria; we are unique in doing so through the lens of UN values including the principles of human rights, tolerance and peace.

We do this at our own initiative, because it is deeply important to us that we deliver an education that respects values shared by the UN and respects the Palestinian people and their history.  

In 2016, Palestine started introducing new textbooks into its schools.  While the vast majority of the textbooks for grades 1 to 9 present no problem whatsoever, some of the new content has triggered concerns. In keeping with practice we reviewed all the new textbooks with a focus on political bias and neutrality, age appropriateness, and gender representations. And we identified issues on just over 3% of the pages – thousands of them – ranging from maps to representation of gender roles. 

In following-up, these issues have been raised with Palestine at both technical and senior levels. I have personally raised these issues with the Minister of Education, Higher Education and the Prime Minister. In addition, guidance for teachers has been updated and we are providing them with direct support for issues they address in the classroom.

We are committed to our education goals in this important area, and our partners have acknowledged the extent of UNRWA’s efforts to achieve them.  More broadly, UNRWA is on the leading edge of education in a region hard hit by conflict and extremism. There is remarkable progress in instilling a vision of human rights and other UN values in our gender balanced education system. And multi-year reforms are fostering critical and independent thinking in a rising generation of Palestine refugee children.

This brings me to the Agency’s ongoing commitment to neutrality and challenges we are addressing in this field. There can be no doubting how seriously we take neutrality. Neutrality is embraced by us as an action-oriented principle, which is crucial to preserve access, trust and credibility in highly polarized environments.

Among the challenges are this year’s financial crisis which affected capacity in some neutrality functions. We are making internal arrangements to ensure resources focus on critical areas.  The Great Marches to the Gaza border posed another challenge, particularly in the social media sphere, as heavy loss of life and massive injuries sparked widespread outrage. So far we have not discovered, nor seen allegations of, social media violations by our staff in this relation – a testament to their dedication to UNRWA’s mission.

Last year – and this is something you’ll see in the report – a number of events in Gaza created some of the most serious neutrality challenges in recent memory.  As reflected in my current report to the General Assembly, when an Agency investigation – our investigation – concluded that two staff members held or were elected into senior positions in Hamas, we swiftly ended their employment. Tunnels were also discovered by UNRWA under two of our schools during repair works last year in Gaza. UNRWA issued strong public condemnation, protested vigorously to Hamas, and sealed the tunnels with concrete – a move few humanitarian organizations would make, I think I can safely say.

We will continue being vigilant; should there be other challenges of this kind and we will not hesitate to take action again.

Given the exceptional challenges UNRWA grapples with daily, the risk it takes to sustain – with success – its humanitarian mission on behalf of the international community, I also ask the Member States to ensure that our work is not politicized. Your support, individually and collectively, in preserving the independent, humanitarian character of UNRWA is indispensable, as we continue operating in some of the world’s most polarized environments. 


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Inevitably, in reports about humanitarian crises, there is a tendency to focus on the trauma, the pain and the criticality of needs. In the situation of Palestine refugees this is compounded by the number of decades since their original displacement.

And while there is no doubting or overlooking the pain, there is also much strength, creativity and positive energy in the refugee community. And I say to you, as Member States of the General Assembly, that our operations remain as important as they were when we began. I say it not out of a sense of despair but out of a deep belief that we have together contributed to one of the most successful human development processes for a refugee community in recent history, including major steps in the direction of attaining vital Sustainable Development Goals.

When, thanks to the contributions of many Member States this year, we were able to open the 711 UNRWA schools on time, it was a moment of pure and simple celebration. We celebrated the preservation of the right to education for 530,000 girls and boys, from Aleppo to Rafah in the Gaza Strip. We celebrated the level of education delivered in our schools despite the immense financial pressures. But we also celebrated the relevance of our partnerships with you in preserving our school system.

Having worked for many years in conflict zones, I am deeply familiar with the fact that wars destroy infrastructure and institutions vital to the stability of nations and their ability to recover post-war. UNRWA’s schools, I mentioned 711 schools, our clinics – 140 of them – and hundreds of other installations are part of a vital institutional backbone, providing invaluable services and regional stability, fostering conditions that support the international community’s and our search for peace.

Furthermore, experience tells us that a vital component of that search for peace is to help the parties rediscover the humanity in the “Other”.  It is my conviction that the international community’s assistance to both communities in the Middle East conflict is necessary.

UNRWA draws inspiration from the humanity it sees every day in the refugee community and youth in our schools in particular. This generation is absolutely determined to rise above adversity that surrounds them, to succeed in their education and to lead a life of dignity, a life in which the rights of all peoples are respected.

When two UNRWA students, Aseel – a Palestine refugee girl from Lebanon – and Ahmad, - a Palestine refugee boy from Jordan – accompanied me to the High-Level week of the General Assembly in September, they addressed several fora, stating that they want to be recognized for their skills and desire to contribute to global solutions.

This is why UNRWA is here. Why we are committed, with dynamism and energy, to helping this generation in search of dignity. And I believe the effort is worth it a million times over, and thank the Member States, thank all of you for your solidarity and trust in making that possible.

Mister Chairman, thank you so much, that concludes my comment.

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.