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Exchange of views with the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee, Introductory Remarks of the UNRWA Commissioner-General
- I thank the Chair Mr. McAllister for the invitation to address this Committee, and also sincerely thank all the Members present and connected.
- 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the EU-UNRWA partnership. We have achieved so much together for the wellbeing of Palestine refugees and for stability in the Near East.
- The support of the EU and of its member-states enabled UNRWA to educate over 2 million Palestine refugees.
- Girls and women have been empowered. Half of all UNRWA students have been girls since the 1960’s. Fifty percent of our workforce is composed of women. Maternal mortality dropped well below global targets.
- UNRWA developed the only e-health network in the Middle East- something that was extremely useful during COVID, when the whole world struggled to switch to online health services.
- The European Parliament has been a key contributor to these achievements.
Operational update and increasing reliance on UNRWA services
- Since I last briefed this committee in November 2020, the situation in the region has continued to deteriorate.
- UNRWA operates in 5 fields. 4 of them are in crisis, in addition to the devastating impact of the ongoing pandemic.
- In this context, a growing number of Palestine refugees almost exclusively rely on UNRWA basic services, such as healthcare and education at a time the Agency is confronted with unprecedented financial difficulties.
- In Gaza, poverty and trauma are rampant from 4 conflict, including last May, and 14 years of blockade. UNRWA provides food assistance to about 70% of the population in Gaza as unemployment is skyrocketing. And the security situation remains volatile with fears that a new conflict can erupt in the absence of a genuine political trajectory.
The situation in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem is tense and volatile. Hundreds of people continue to live with the daily threat of evictions and demolitions.
Widespread violence, excessive use of force by Israeli Security Forces and weak accountability have injured or killed more Palestinians so far in 2021 than in any of the last 4 years. Settler violence is also rising in a climate of impunity.
Lebanon is on the brink of total collapse. Half the population lives below the poverty line today. Almost all Palestine refugees in the country, around 210,000 are unable to cover their basic needs. Employment opportunities for Palestine refugees, including as daily paid workers, are almost inexistent. Anger and anxiety are boiling in Palestine refugee camps, and there are now frequent sit-ins and demonstration in front of UNRWA premises in Lebanon to ask for more support.
- While the active hostilities have subsided in Syria, the situation remains tense in the northwest and has recently deteriorated in Dera’a governorate in the south, close to a camp for Palestine refugees where the entire community has been displaced. Palestine refugees are amongst the most vulnerable population in Syria with many living on just one meal a day.
UNRWA’s irreplaceable role
- In this highly unstable environment, where poverty and despair are high, Palestine refugees community long for a sense of normality, safety and stability.
- Only a strong UNRWA can provide these.
- UNRWA services are a lifeline for many deprived Palestine refugees. The feeling of safety that these services give contribute to giving refugees, especially young people, a sense of hope.
- Let me give you some examples:
- First, UNRWA accompanies millions of Palestine refugees on their transformative journey towards self-reliance. Every year over half a million children learn in UNRWA schools. The World Bank and UNHCR have praised the quality of our education and UNRWA students outperform their peers attending public school. 75 per cent of the graduates from UNRWA technical and vocational training centers found employment in 2020 despite the pandemic. Since the 1990s, our Microfinance programme has contributed towards sustaining or creating close to 700,000 jobs in the region.
- Second, in a region rife with violence, UNRWA education is an antidote to hatred and intolerance. For over 20 years, UNRWA has injected UN principles and human rights, tolerance and peaceful conflict- resolution education into its teaching.
- Third, UNRWA is the only steady source of support for 2.4 million Palestine refugees across the region. We refer here to their most basic needs, including food and shelter.
- Our food and cash assistance prevents Palestine refugees from falling deeper into poverty and from having to resort to negative coping mechanisms, such as child labor, early marriage, migration through dangerous routes or, at times, radicalization.
Attacks against UNRWA education programme
- Let me pause here for a moment to address some false and baseless information about UNRWA that this Parliament routinely receives.
- Since 2018, UNRWA has faced growing attacks from politically motivated pressure groups on its education programme aiming at delegitimizing the Agency and erode the rights of Palestine refugees.
- I say this without hesitation as it is clear that these organizations do not have the wellbeing of Palestine refugee children at heart.
- Harming UNRWA will not erase 5,7 million Palestine refugees. Palestine
refugees’ rights are enshrined in international law and UN Resolutions.
- Let me clarify upfront that I take every allegation seriously and investigate and take action when an incident is confirmed.
- I am acutely aware that we operate in a highly political, divided and emotional environment where zero risk does not exist.
- But as Commissioner General and UNRWA, we have zero tolerance for hate speech, incitement to violence and discrimination, including anti- Semitism.
- Therefore, the Agency spares no effort to uphold humanitarian principles, including neutrality, and the values of the United Nations:
We are the only UN Agency with a Team of dedicated staff to ensure the Agency uphold humanitarian principles, including neutrality, at all times.
We have invested immense efforts in training personnel to promote their understanding of neutrality and the vital role it plays in their daily work and of their obligations in that regard.
We review all Host countries’ textbooks. For each passage we identify which is not in line with UN values, we provide guidance and train our teachers to ensure they address this in the classroom and their teaching reflect UN values, UN Resolutions and international law. Any passages where violence is praised, whatever the context, are not taught.
To ensure that all the guidance material that teachers produce to support distance learning during the pandemic, we launched a centralized digital learning platform where every guidance material undergoes a 3-tier review to ensure full compliance with UN values and principles.
- Finally, I welcome the independent review done by the Georg Eckert’s institute of Palestinian textbooks. This review confirms that they adhere to UNESCO standard and that they have really improved from the previous editions.
- I confirm that the few problematic issues identified in the study had already been identified and are being addressed in our classrooms.
- I wish to call upon the Agency’s closest partners, including you, to be proud and defend your investment in our education programme. I also take this opportunity to extend, again, an invitation to visit our schools and meet our students.
Outlook: financial, international conference and blueprint
- To support every Palestine refugee achieve its human potential in the challenging context in which they live, we need a strong UNRWA.
- A strong UNRWA is one who contributes to stability and peace in the region.
- A strong UNRWA also requires predictable and sufficient funding.
- Last year, we barely avoided a financial collapse. Only thanks to the support of a few key donors, including the EU, a generous CERF loan and the carry- over of huge liabilities were we able to sustain services until the end of the year.
- This year, and despite the very welcome return of the US among our largest donors, our financial situation remains uncertain.
- We still have a shortfall of around US$ 100m. This is because some traditional donors, including the UK, have reduced their contributions this year while regional Arab partners have not yet contributed.
- The UNRWA mandate is clear and enjoys global support. But UNRWA funding model is unsustainable.
- Failing to mobilize sufficient and predictable funding puts at risk the education of over half a million children in a highly volatile region.
- Insufficient resources can halt the COVID-19 vaccine roll out just as the 4th wave is looming. Low funding will reduce health services for pregnant women and new mothers; and will limit our ability to procure essential medicine.
- The list of risks is long if UNRWA does not receive firm commitment for sustainable and sufficient funding.
- One risk is increased despair that can push people into the perilous migration routes out of the region.
- The international conference which will be convened by Jordan and Sweden in the next month offers a unique opportunity to move away from short term financial crisis management to long term financial sustainability.
- The objective of the hosts is to find an agreement among UNRWA’s partners, donors and Hosts, on a sustainable and predictable funding level for the Agency, that enables it to effectively and fully implement its mandate.
- I welcome the active engagement of the EU, both here and locally, in the discussions taking place in the run up to the conference.
- For decades, the EU has been the largest multilateral and most reliable donor to the Agency.
- I look forward to signing our next Joint Declaration, which is a model for many partners.
- It is thanks to the support of this House that in the past years the EU has been in a position to allocate additional funds for Palestine refugees. Let me take this opportunity to warmly thank you for this, and to ask for your continued support in this sense during the ongoing budgetary procedure.
- No one is a refugee by choice. No Palestine refugee wants to be a refugee for so long. Until a solution to their plight is found, a strong UNRWA able to rely on predictable funding is what Palestine refugees and the region needs.
Thank you Mr Chair.
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