International Conference CG remarks

16 November 2021
UN Secretary-General Appoints Mr Philippe Lazzarini UNRWA Commissioner-General, International Conference CG remarks

Your Excellencies, 

I want to express my sincere gratitude to each of you for being with us today. 

Your presence, as you have heard from the Secretary-General, is a testimony of our shared commitment to preserve the rights and human development of Palestine refugees.

I want to thank in particular the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Jordan, Ayman Safadi, and the Foreign Minister of Sweden, Anne Linde, for their leadership in bringing us together today at this crucial time in UNRWA’s history. 

 

Excellencies,

We are meeting today, at a time when UNRWA has an ambitious vision which I am pleased to outline. 

Our vision is to deliver our services in line with our times. 

It rests on the commitment to “Leave no Palestine refugee behind.”

It is about ensuring that UNRWA services continue to accompany all refugees on their transformative journey towards self-reliance. 

Our vision will ensure that Palestine refugees do not miss the train of global digital transformation. 

In our schools and in our vocational training centres this means developing the type of digital literacy that will allow children and youth to fully engage in today’s technological revolution. 

You may have heard of Loay Elbasyouni - who went from an UNRWA school in Gaza to being a successful engineer at NASA. 

We want many more Palestine refugee youth to go from UNRWA to NASA, or from UNRWA to medical research or from UNRWA to any innovative start up that is pushing the boundaries of human possibilities. 

This wager on digital opportunities is not a pipe dream: from an UNRWA IT hub in Gaza, Palestine refugees are already providing high quality IT services to a growing list of clients worldwide.  And this was incubated in our offices in Gaza.

We also want to build on our pandemic response, when UNRWA was able to quickly switch to remote solutions and avoid significant interruptions of services.

We want to expand the use of digital tools to complement and enrich face-to-face services. That way health services, for example, will be safer, faster and easier to access through digital platforms.

This transformation is also about making our management practices more inclusive, more open and receptive to new voices from across our staff. 

It means breaking siloes across the Agency to better address specific needs, namely those related to mental health, disability and sexual violence. 

Modernization drives our efforts to seek new funding relationships.

Modernization underpins our digital fundraising ambitions and efforts to broaden our donor base through global and regional financial institutions, the private sector and development banks.

Finally, in line with the times, as well as with past practices, we will maintain UNRWA’s recognized efficiency and value for money which has recently been reaffirmed by UNHCR and the World Bank when they assessed our education system.

 

Excellencies

To implement this vision, we must face a moment of truth.

Financial and political threats of a truly existential nature are working against this vision. 

If these threats are not addressed decisively, they will create a vacuum and a human disaster that this region simply cannot afford.

As you have just heard from the UN Secretary-General, the services delivered by UNRWA enable refugees to accomplish remarkable things, despite the challenges they face. 

These achievements are widely known and recognized. 

Yet, the almost unanimous political support for the UNRWA mandate is not translated into matching funding support. 

Resources have stagnated since 2013 while:

  •  Multiple major crises have hit the region, and
  • Needs and expectations for UNRWA to deliver have increased. 

As a result, financial crises have increased in frequency and severity. 

These crises are causing immense distress amongst refugees and staff.

They are fueling a deep feeling of abandonment by the international community.

Despair and anger are boiling in the camps.

At the end of last year, UNRWA barely avoided a financial collapse.

And as we convene today, I am faced with the same uncertainty as I do not know if UNRWA will receive sufficient funding to keep all its services running in November and December.

That means our entire operation is compromised. 

Close to 400,000 Palestine refugees wonder when they will receive their cash assistance, without which they cannot make ends meet. 

Our health centres are unable to fill their stocks of medicine.

Unpaid internet and electricity bills risk is undermining our basic capacity to work. 

And our staff must deal with frozen benefits and delayed salaries while being asked to continue to work. 

I am painfully aware of the sacrifices they are asked to make. 

Failure to maintain services will have a dramatic impact on the refugees.

Over 2 million poor and conflict-affected refugees will be left without food and cash assistance. 

More than half a million girls and boys will lose their right to education. 

COVID-19 vaccination rollout, in the midst of a pandemic, will come to a halt. 

Maternal and childcare will stop. 

Long-standing human development gains can be reversed. 

This situation is neither fair nor sustainable.  

Failing the rights, hopes and expectations of Palestine refugees should not be an option for those interested in peace and stability.

 

Excellencies,

Our operations, a lifeline to Palestine refugees, can be maintained at a minimum of US$ 800 million per year, for several years to come, with an expected annual natural growth.

I also call today for a one-time capital injection of US$ 100 million to bring UNRWA and personnel back to their full capacity.

Austerity and cost reduction measures have depleted our assets and reduced our workforce to the bare minimum.

This has a severe impact on our service delivery. 

Quality of learning is not the same when 25 children or up to 50 are in one classroom.

Health services are not the same when a doctor-patient visit lasts no more than three minutes. 

And most of our IT assets are completely obsolete.

We can't sustain further budget reductions. 

 

Friends of UNRWA,

These financial threats are closely connected to the vicious and increasingly frequent political attacks that UNRWA is facing.

We need to address these attacks for what they are. 

Their objective?

To erase the rights of over 5.8 million registered Palestine refugees as enshrined in international law and UN resolutions.  

How? 

By weakening the Agency, through baseless accusations of politicization and incitement. 

This is both naïve and dangerous.

Let me be clear: as Commissioner-General and as a UN Agency, we have absolutely zero tolerance for any word or action that seeks to spread hatred, discrimination or violence towards any other individual, people or country. 

And you will hear more about that in the next session from the Deputy Commissioner-General.

But there is nothing like zero risk when operating in the context of the longest unresolved conflict; a highly divided and emotional environment. 

No agency invests more than UNRWA into mitigating these risks. 

These attacks will likely continue and even grow in viciousness. 

The lack of a political horizon and donor fatigue is no excuse to divert us from the imperative to protect the most vulnerable. 

I hope everyone can agree:

  • with the need to ensure every refugee, wherever she or he lives, has access to education to become active and positive citizens of the world;
  • with the imperative of providing maternal care to a refugee in a camp in Lebanon;
  • with the necessity of humanitarian assistance to destitute refugee families in Gaza or in Syria.  

 

That is the UNRWA mandate. It is what we do, nothing more, nothing less. 

And let me stress an obvious but tragic reality: No one wants to be a refugee, from one generation to another.

So, together, we need to do more to counter these attacks, to expose their political agendas and shield Palestine refugees from the crippling impact of these attacks. 

 

Excellencies,

UNRWA is both a truly compelling story of global solidarity in action and a tragic example of ineffective and insufficient financial support that pushes it to the brink. 

There is too much to lose.

If we fail to find real solutions now and for the future, the institution will very soon jump over the brink.

This will leave an unstable vacuum in its wake. 

And no environment likes a vacuum. 

Something else could emerge, something which could have lasting and definitive impact on the aspirations of Palestine refugees and more broadly on the region.

This can be prevented.

Today, I ask you, representatives from United Nations Member States, to translate your political support into predictable, sufficient and sustainable resources to UNRWA. 

Your support will ensure that UNRWA continues to be the irreplaceable and trusted lifeline for Palestine refugees until a fair and lasting political solution is achieved.

  

Thank you

For more information, please contact:

Sami Mshasha
Director of Communications, Arabic Language Spokesperson
Mobile: 
+972 (0)54 216 8295
Office: 
+972 (0)258 90724
Tamara Alrifai
UNRWA Spokesperson
Mobile: 
+962 (0)79 090 0140