Commissioner-General's statement to the UN's Special Political and Decolonisation Committee

06 November 2012

Statement by the Commissioner-General of UNRWA
to the Fourth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly
(Special Political and Decolonisation Committee)

6 November 2012
New York

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I welcome the opportunity to present to this Committee my report on the work of UNRWA for 2011. As in previous years, I will also take account of major developments in 2012.

Before describing our broader challenges, however, I wish to pay tribute to the five UNRWA staff members who have been recently killed in Syria, the last one – a woman teacher – just a few days ago. These colleagues have shared the tragic fate of thousands who have died in a brutal conflict in which civilians remain unprotected, in spite of repeated appeals to the parties to respect international law.

The loss of our staff - Palestine refugees themselves - brings home to us in the starkest terms the human dimension of the Palestine refugee question.  Our task - our collective responsibility - is to provide assistance and protection to individual Palestine refugees – men, women and children - all with their personal history, but also connected with the collective, often dramatic history of the Palestinian people in the past six and a half decades. This task is not becoming any easier.  In fact, at a time when the Arab Spring has brought dynamism and attention to the Middle East, Palestinians - and Palestine refugees in particular - remain sidelined, to all intents and purposes forgotten by the international community and increasingly vulnerable amidst both unresolved and fresh conflicts.

The Middle East peace process (a successful outcome of which also depends on a just solution to the question of Palestine refugees) has made no progress for years. The question of Palestinian statehood remains unresolved. The Palestinian leadership has not yet found a way towards reconciliation and unity. The financial problems of the Palestinian Authority, compounded by the strangulation of long-term occupation, closures and the Gaza blockade have rendered the occupied Palestinian territory economically unviable. UNRWA itself is chronically underfunded, and if that were not enough, it is being subjected to renewed attacks peddling the simplistic and damaging falsehood that UNRWA is the “cause” of the prolonged Palestine refugee issue and its disappearance would resolve this question.

Today for Palestinians, and especially for Palestine refugees, there is no prospect of an early, just solution to their plight. We should not be surprised, therefore, that frustration is growing amongst the Palestine refugee population, reflecting the hopelessness and despair that overwhelm them.

In this grim context, UNRWA continues to be a point of reference for five million refugees. Not only does it symbolise the international community’s continued commitment to support them pending a solution, but it also provides crucial services, especially health and education, which for most refugees would not be affordable or available otherwise. However, two major challenges continue to affect the Agency’s ability to provide basic humanitarian and human development services: the prevalence of conflict and the scarcity of funds. Let me share with you a few thoughts on the main challenges in the various fields of operation of UNRWA, seen from these perspectives.

Two months ago the UN issued a warning entitled “Gaza 2020:  A liveable place?” outlining Gaza’s future. By 2020 the population of Gaza will have grown by another half a million people, who will need to be fed, housed, educated and to have employment opportunities. More than half of them will be under 18. In 2020, all those in the Gaza Strip will face the prospect of having no fresh water. The message is stark, and dramatic. Unless the blockade is lifted and the economy restarts, Gaza will not be a liveable place by any standards. For UNRWA - the main service provider in the Strip - sustaining its services on this trajectory will be very challenging. The current refugee population of 1.2 million, two thirds of the population, will rise to 1.5 million. UNRWA, which among other things runs education and health services for refugees, will need to add 2500 medical and teaching staff to its Gaza personnel - this is more than 8% of UNRWA’s total current workforce in the entire region. The blockade has created a skewed economy, based on public salaries funded by international assistance, and by trade through tunnels. Most people do not benefit - or benefit very little - from this situation, and continue to depend on food and cash assistance. Yet, this assistance is also at risk. Three years after the 2008-2009 conflict and the substantial international response that followed, with Gaza largely absent from the headlines, only 41% of our Emergency Appeal was met in 2011, and a similar outcome is foreseen for 2012. Not only has UNRWA been forced to cut a number of special activities, including the popular summer games for children; but it is also struggling to provide food assistance to almost 800,000 vulnerable refugees.

True, the limited easing of some of the blockade restrictions, as previously reported, has helped with reconstruction projects. However, the task of rebuilding the Gaza Strip is made more difficult for UNRWA and other agencies by Israel’s delays in approving projects and complex import and monitoring requirements. For UNRWA, this cost some US$ 5 million of donor money in 2011 alone.

Clearly, violence has to end – including rockets launched against civilian communities in southern Israel, which violate international law and contribute to instability. The blockade, however, must be lifted, and this does not simply mean easing restrictions to importing building materials, welcome as that has been  - but resuming investments, farming, trade and free movement, and especially allowing exports to Gaza’s traditional markets of Israel and the West Bank, just to mention a few. Because without drastic changes, Gaza will remain in a man-made crisis:  80% aid dependent, and economically strangled, a worrying prospect as it moves towards 2020 with a very large, frustrated and unemployed young population.

The West Bank, including East Jerusalem, where refugees are almost 30% of the total population, is often misleadingly characterised as being in a situation of status quo.  It is not. A devastating protection crisis prevails.  The continued settlement expansion, settler violence, land expropriation, building prohibitions, increased demolitions, movement restrictions and the asphyxiation of traditional herding livelihoods have been reported countless times: the fact that such events have nevertheless become the day-to-day norm should not make us complacent in our responses to measures that are contrary to international law and human rights, the cause of unbearable hardship for countless people, and a major obstacle to peace.  In our daily work, we continue to witness a gradual erosion of space and rights for Palestine refugees and indeed for all Palestinians. Make no mistake: they are being progressively, sometimes openly alienated from their land, from Jerusalem, from each other, thereby becoming  increasingly confined to their immediate enclaves, unable to enjoy to the fullest their civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.

UNRWA, besides providing its usual services, works closely with other United Nations agencies in trying to address some of the most urgent consequences of this situation, with a particular focus on vulnerable Palestine refugee communities in exposed areas - the seam zones, East Jerusalem and Area C. But there are huge constraints. Like in Gaza, humanitarian funding is drying up, which has obliged UNRWA to reduce many key interventions. But more importantly, there is a lack of real action in respect of the protection crisis. Public statements are made condemning settlement expansion and other violations of international law, but without political determination to stop it, the colonising enterprise, which the United Nations and the international community clearly consider illegal, will move forward inexorably, with impunity, and with potentially dangerous consequences.

The situation in the occupied Palestinian territory therefore continues to be of primary concern. Since last year, however, Palestine refugees have found themselves caught in a new crisis. In Syria, they have traditionally enjoyed generous hospitality, complemented by access to UNRWA services, employment and enjoyment of other basic rights. However the devastating Syrian crisis is now directly affecting most of the 518,000 Palestine refugees living in the country. A significant number of Palestine refugees have been killed, injured and compelled to move from their homes to seek safety.

Mr. Chairman, it is with extreme concern that we observe Palestine refugees in Syria being progressively engulfed in the conflict. It is crucial - I repeat: crucial - that all sides refrain from conducting hostilities in civilian areas and comply with their obligations, under international law, to protect Palestine refugees and other civilians across Syria from the effect of armed conflict. At the same time, UNRWA remains committed to supporting Palestine refugees by maintaining – to the extent that security allows – existing services, and providing additional assistance wherever necessary, to strengthen the refugees‘ ability to cope with worsening conflict and socio-economic conditions. Our staff of over 3600 have acted selflessly to try to keep UNRWA’s services operating in difficult and dangerous circumstances, sometimes losing their lives in doing so.

Growing poverty and insecurity affect all civilians in Syria, including Palestine refugees. I am grateful to those donors who have contributed to our Regional Response Plan: 43% of the plan has been funded, and I urge all governments to consider further contributions. The bulk of the resources under this plan - US$ 44 million out of 54 million - is destined to Palestine refugees inside Syria. These funds are used for direct cash payments, food and non-food assistance, pre-positioning of medicine and supplies for winter, reinforcing staff security, and for developing alternative education modalities to support many children and teachers who are unable to attend school regularly.

If violence does not stop, though, and if the conflict deepens, ever greater numbers of Palestine refugees will require support.  In recent months, some 60,000 families have approached our offices to seek assistance, and this number grows.  On this basis,  UNRWA estimates that as many as three-quarters of Palestine refugees may need help to meet their food and other essential living requirements.  Prior to the conflict, Palestine refugees in Syria were already among the poorer strata of society. This pre-existing vulnerability is profoundly aggravated by the impact of the war. Amidst economic privations, insecurity and trauma, Palestine refugees are struggling to meet their needs, which are becoming more acute with the onset of winter.

Under the Regional Response Plan, UNRWA is also asking for US$ 10 million to assist Palestine refugees from Syria fleeing to Jordan and Lebanon – currently numbering 1600 and 8000, respectively.  Their situation - difficult, like that of other refugees fleeing Syria - adds to the tensions and complexities created by the pre-existing presence of large Palestine refugee communities in those countries. In spite of the relatively small number of Palestine refugees that have left Syria, their plight sadly confirms our view that - no matter how long they have lived in host countries and how hospitably they have been treated - they remain extremely vulnerable and exposed to the shocks of crises, given the centrality and sensitivity of the Palestinian question in the regional context.

We fully appreciate that countries neighbouring Syria have assumed once again a large burden in receiving - with limited international assistance - a huge influx of Syrian refugees. I would like to stress that Palestine refugees leaving Syria for temporary protection are fleeing the same grave risks and dangers as other refugees. Unfortunately, UNRWA has received information of a number of Palestinians being denied that protection. I would like to appeal once more to neighbouring countries to apply humanitarian criteria in considering these cases, not to distinguish between different categories of refugees, and to avoid any refoulement and deportation until the conflict in Syria has been resolved. On our part, we stand ready to cooperate with the authorities in order to support these cases and minimise any burden on host communities.

Meanwhile, in Lebanon, conditions for Palestine refugees remain very difficult. They have limited right to work and may not own property, in spite of some progress in these areas, as previously reported. As a consequence, poverty is rife, living conditions in squalid camps are among the worst in the region, and services that are beyond UNRWA’s remit or ability to support (such as advanced health care) are out of reach for a majority of refugees.

A priority is to finish the reconstruction of Nahr Al Bared Camp, which was totally destroyed in 2007 leaving 27,000 Palestine refugees homeless. Last year we reported that close to 1500 individuals had moved back into rebuilt houses. By the end of this year we hope that 2700 people in total will have come back, with another 2400 returns planned for 2013. This, however, will leave a large number of refugees - in excess of 17,000 - still displaced as of 1 January 2014.  So, we are making progress, in spite of the huge challenges of having to rebuild an entire town. However, funding remains slow and inadequate. So far, we have money to rebuild half the camp. Meanwhile, we must continue to cover rental and other expenses of those displaced for the sixth year – a humanitarian activity which has become difficult to sustain, but which is indispensable, especially in the fragile context of Northern Lebanon.

We have also been discussing with the government how to ease restrictions on transporting building materials into camps, and bring into effect amendments to the labour law voted by Parliament in 2010 that would give Palestine refugees broad access to employment. We look forward to working closely on these and other issues with the government of Lebanon, and in particular the revitalised Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee.

These, Mr. Chairman, are our main field challenges. Underpinning them is the compounding element of resources.  UNRWA is a large UN organisation providing public services to an entire population across several countries, in state-like fashion, but it must do so by relying on voluntary financing, which is, to an extent, unpredictable. This is a unique structural problem in the UN system, which, inevitably, has created challenges of sustainability over the decades. The present juncture is particularly difficult. With a Palestine refugee population growing at 3.5% a year and with a number of donors experiencing economic difficulties, funding shortfalls increasingly affect the viability of the Agency.

I would like to stress that our services constitute the minimum necessary to satisfy the social and economic rights of refugees.  To reduce them would not only be politically risky, but also morally wrong.  However, the range of large donors remains very narrow. The European Union and some of its Member States, the United States, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, and Japan, together still account for 90% of UNRWA’s funding, in spite of a few traditional donors having decreased, sometimes dramatically, their contributions. I want to pay strong and clear tribute to the generosity of this group of donors- which, in some cases, has been maintained even as public spending at home was being reduced.

However, I want to underline that UNRWA’s General Fund - which supports the education, health, relief, protection and social services – is in a perilous state. Overall contributions to the Fund have remained static for almost five years while refugee needs have grown and costs have increased. In the past year, we have developed a number of strategies to address this structural issue.

First, if UNRWA is to continue to provide services to refugees, the donor base must be urgently expanded. We have worked in this direction, with some tangible successes. Two of my most important visits in the past months were to Brazil and Turkey, where I was heartened to receive tangible support for Palestine refugees and UNRWA, in government and in civil society. Outside the group of traditional donors, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Russia and South Africa have also increased contributions to the General Fund.  I hope these initiatives will be sustained over time, and will be replicated by other countries.

Second, we are responding to our stakeholders‘ legitimate demand that we operate in a manner as cost effective and efficient as possible. Since 2006 UNRWA has undergone far-reaching management reform efforts to achieve optimum effectiveness, and is now re-aligning its field operations, particularly in education and health, to improve quality but also to ensure the best service for the money.  In health, we are adopting a family-focused approach that has increased satisfaction of refugees and efficiency of service.  Our education reform is very bold and broad, and aims to enhance creativity and independent thinking of children, and empower teachers and school managers.  And we deliver at a cost that is comparable to host governments, and much lower than those in more developed countries.

Third, we have imposed strict austerity measures.  Support costs have been squeezed, activities postponed, payments to contractors delayed  to the extent possible. This year’s core budget was reduced by US$ 25 million. This, of course, has consequences. We have no financial reserves, and very little cash, and basically run essential services hand to mouth - a less than ideal approach. But we will persist, with discipline, in identifying every possible saving.

Fourth, we must address the issue of staff salaries. The volatile environment in the region has prompted governments to increase public sector wages. Because UNRWA’s  longstanding salary policy is to match the remuneration of its 30,000 staff with those of public servants in refugee hosting countries, such increases have had a strong impact on UNRWA’s core budget. Paying salaries to teachers, doctors, nurses and social workers – among others – is crucial to UNRWA, whose Palestinian staff forms the backbone of its work. Finding a balance between fair wages and fiscal prudence is therefore imperative, and UNRWA is conducting consultations with its stakeholders, including staff unions, to address this matter. 
These strategies will need time to bear substantive fruit. Support - and patience - are required from all stakeholders. Meanwhile, there are urgent financial imperatives that must be met if UNRWA is to continue to operate effectively. It distresses me to tell you that unless UNRWA secures US$37 million by the end of this month we will be unable to pay December salaries. And although the budget for 2013 is still being discussed with our stakeholders, and will be finalised only after consulting with the Advisory Commission, current trends indicate that our initial financial shortfall for 2013 under the General Fund will be almost US$ 70 million - less than this year’s opening shortfall, but still a considerable challenge under the present circumstances.

Mr. Chairman,

Ignored and undermined, Palestinian hopes for a better future have never been as low as they are today. Predicting the outcome of collective hopelessness is not difficult; we all know what frustration and marginalisation can breed in volatile regions.

UNRWA - neither the cause, nor the solution to the question of refugees, but the only tangible support felt by many of them - is more necessary than ever. I often hear complaints about the cost of an organisation which has been around for over six decades. I can assure you that I am the first one to be concerned by this long, protracted existence, and by the international community’s inability to find the political solutions which will make UNRWA finally unnecessary. But those solutions presently elude us, and the crises that have multiplied in the past decades in the Middle East - each compounding the previous ones, and all affecting Palestinians and Palestine refugees - have, in fact, created new and costly needs for UNRWA and for host countries. UNRWA therefore continues to be required, both in respect of its core services and of the humanitarian and reconstruction activities generated by occupation and conflict. Yet, I wish to state to you in stark, unequivocal terms that UNRWA’s sustainability is at risk unless there is a quantum and sustained leap in your collective commitment to the Agency.

I launch this appeal today to all Member States. However, I address myself particularly to those countries whose economic growth is increasingly matched by a more assertive political role, and specifically to countries in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. They must step up to the important task of supporting UNRWA’s core work in a predictable manner. It is important that they, like traditional donors have done for decades, appreciate how crucial it is to ensure that half a million children continue to attend UNRWA schools every day, and that the health of refugee communities scattered through one of the most sensitive regions on earth is protected in UNRWA clinics - crucial because it is the people’s right to receive those services, and it is in the interest of regional and global stability to ensure that they do.

And let me repeat: Palestine refugees may be a political question, but they are first and foremost people – ordinary men and women who rightly insist on not being discarded and forgotten about as the flotsam and jetsam of history.  As we know, the Arab Spring is being led by youth seeking human dignity.  I have met extensively with Palestine refugee youth.  They have the same aspirations, and their determination is boosted by a new confidence and empowerment.  Our collective moral imperative is to recognise their rights.  Our task is to ensure them the opportunities they seek and which will propel them to lead, to create, to prosper.  At a conference in Brussels, earlier this year, UNRWA made ten commitments to Palestine refugee youth, in the fields of education, scholarships, vocational training, health and refugee participation among others.  While external and funding challenges will affect how the Agency can respond, I am determined to follow through.   Living up to those commitments, alongside genuine and forthright political engagement to resolve the Palestine refugee question, is a very significant part of the quest for peace in the region.

Walking or even tiptoeing away from UNRWA is simply not an option. The price, I am afraid, would be devastating.  Give us your backing, so that together we can ensure that Palestine refugees lead productive lives, while the political dimensions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are addressed in a comprehensive and just manner. These are real keys to the peace and stability which the people in the region, and the world at large, claim and deserve.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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.

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