Open letter from UNRWA Commissioner-General to Palestine refugees

23 December 2021
Open letter from UNRWA Commissioner-General to Palestine refugees

Dear all,

I am writing to you as we are ending another challenging year for Palestine refugees and for UNRWA.

Throughout the year, I had the opportunity to meet and interact with many Palestine refugees across all our fields of operation. I have made it a priority for me to meet with you and your representatives and to listen and see first-hand the hardship you face. I met with UNRWA school students, parents’ associations, youth groups, women organizations and camp committees who shared their concerns, hopes and ideas. I had many exchanges with UNRWA front line staff, including doctors, nurses, teachers, counsellors, sanitation laborers, area and camp officer and many others.

Wherever I go, UNRWA students impress me with their achievements. School parliamentarians impress me with their dreams, their representation and negotiation skills and with their practice of democratic values.

Wherever I go, I am pained by the level of distress and anxiety among the refugee communities. In Gaza, the psycho-social distress I witnessed in the weeks and months after the latest round of conflict, particularly among children, is devastating. In the West Bank, I sat with the Sheikh Jarrah families in East Jerusalem who live with the daily threat of forced displacement. I met with refugees in Jenin camp and saw the impact of the heightened violence in the West Bank on their lives. I met with refugees from Yarmouk and the Homs Palestine refugee camp in Syria who shared their frustration at the slow pace of their return to their homes. In Lebanon, I met young graduates in Burj Baranjeh camp whose only hope for a better future was to emigrate through dangerous migration routes. In Jordan, refugees told me about the immense financial hardships they have faced under COVID-19.

I made it my priority to describe to donors, policy makers and the media the challenges that you, as Palestine refugee faces daily just because of your status: Palestine refugee. In each of my extensive meetings with our donors, I highlight your stories. I remind them that no one wants to be a refugee and that you deserve their full support until a just and lasting solution to your plight.

I am painfully aware that news about the UNRWA dire financial situation adds another layer of distress to your lives. When everything around you falls apart, being able to send your children to school, receive health care and be part of a social safety net are a lifeline.

Since I took up my role as UNRWA Commissioner-General in April 2020, my priority has always been to keep all services running. Today, I am relieved that we have succeeded in keeping 710 schools and 140 clinics open this year and protected the social safety net for nearly 400,000 poor refugees across the region.

We received more funding under our emergency appeals this year and provided 1.5 million Palestine refugees with food or cash assistance to cope with the impact of the occupation in the occupied Palestinian territory, the blockade in Gaza, the Syria crisis, the socio-economic fallout in Lebanon and the socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic across the region, including Jordan. Over 1,200 families in Gaza who lost their homes during the May conflict received transitional shelter cash assistance. About 750 families in the West Bank who have been evicted from their homes or suffered settler violence received support. We continue to adjust our services to meet the challenges of COVID-19, including by partnering with Host countries to roll-out national vaccination campaigns.

Let me pause here for a moment and encourage all those who have not yet been vaccinated to get the vaccines as soon as it is available to you. It is the only way to protect your health, your family, loved ones and the broader community. It is the only hope for a speedy recovery of the economies. UNRWA continues to advocate globally that more vaccines are made available to you.

The financial crisis this year is not another new crisis. For close to a decade now, donor funding to the Agency has stagnated and remained below the amount needed to ensure the continuation of quality services. At the same time the refugee population has continued to grow while poverty and vulnerabilities have skyrocketed. The financial crisis is of an existential nature.

This year we welcomed the United States back as our largest donor. Despite this positive development, the donor income remains below the needs as many have either decreased funding or even disengaged completely. 

But some decisions to decrease or stop support to the Agency are political. Since 2018, the Agency and its mandate have come under increased political attacks. These attacks aim at harming the reputation of the Agency. These attacks are based on the foolish and wrong idea that by closing UNRWA they will erase 5.8 million Palestine refugees. Let me reassure you that your rights, including your right of return and compensation, are enshrined in international law and UN resolutions and have nothing to do with the UNRWA mandate.

To face chronic underfunding, UNRWA has, for a few years now, depleted its reserves and introduced reforms to increase efficiency. From 2015, the Agency increasingly introduced austerity and cost control measures that allowed us to keep services running. Since 2019, we have also been carrying over large liabilities from one year to another, meaning each year we start with a debt.

Today, austerity has reached its limit and is impacting the quality of our services. Austerity reaches its limit when we put 50 children in a classroom or leave the most deprived children without transportation or stationery. Austerity reaches its limit when a doctor can only spend three minutes with a patient. Austerity reaches its limit when many teachers and sanitation laborers are daily paid workers. These are frontline staff and it really pains me that UNRWA cannot yet give them more stable jobs. Austerity reaches its limit when we cannot increase the number of poor refugees that we can support at a time poverty is rampant.

In the face of such adversity, the only right thing to do is to relentlessly defend your right to a dignified life and to tell donors that fatigue and competing priorities are no excuse for underfunding. This is what my senior management and myself do every day.

At the international conference co-hosted by Jordan and Sweden in Brussels in November, I clearly told donors that UNRWA and Palestine refugees cannot carry the outcome of the failure of the international community to come to a just and lasting solution to their plight by themselves. I reiterated that in the absence of a fair political solution, UNRWA must be able to operate without the constant threat of lack of funds.

Our mandate is clear and enjoys broad international support. This political support must now be translated into matching resources. We at UNRWA must reconcile the services that are expected from us with the funds being made available. I have repeatedly warned the international community that failing to do so will only precipitate the collapse of the Agency. 

Today, I firmly believe that together with Hosts countries of Palestine refugees and UNRWA donors we can find a solution. Hosts and donors agree that we need to break the vicious cycle of financial crises of UNRWA. They are committed to finding solutions to preserve the rights of Palestinian refugees to live in dignity. But the solution is not straightforward and will require engaged discussions between both donors and Hosts, which will be my priorities in 2022.

To support these discussions and show the world the kind of UNRWA we need, we have developed over the last year a vision for a modernized Agency able to continue to accompany every Palestine refugee on their journey towards self-reliance. We have consulted extensively with refugees, staff, Hosts and donors. This vision is about improving the services available to Palestine refugees by using, for example, digital technology like the mobile apps we developed to support pregnant women or patients with communicable diseases, or the online refugee registration portal to facilitate the registration of newborns and others. We will do all we can to ensure for example that Palestine refugee girls and boys acquire the skills they need to remain competitive in a fast-evolving global digital market.

To be successful, the Agency needs to be able to rely on sufficient, predictable and sustainable funding. It will require more long-term funding from existing donors, expanding the donor base and increase digital fundraising, including Islamic donations. It will also require us to look at partnership and innovative funding mechanisms and models to ensure Palestine refugees have continued access to all services.

To be successful, we will also need to shield the Agency from those who try to harm its reputation, integrity and purpose. Our donors have now understood the risk and agreed to support us in shielding the Agency. But we will need to remain vigilant as our detractors will use any incident to undermine the reputation of the Agency.

We will need to lead by example and ensure everything we do is in line with UN values and purposes and in line with humanitarian principles of independence, impartiality, humanity and neutrality. In so doing, we will also continue to vehemently push back against false and sensationalist accusations that UNRWA teaches hate in its schools or that our staff promote violence. We will also continue to defend the right of Palestine refugee children, wherever they are, to learn about their Palestinian identity and heritage and our schools will not attempt to negate the difficult circumstances under which they live, like how over 300,000 Palestine refugee children in Gaza and the West Bank suffer the consequences of occupation.

UNRWA has reached a turning point in its history. It will require bold decisions to ensure you and your families continue to access quality services that are part of your right to a dignified life. This is the primary goal of senior UNRWA management.  We will not spare any efforts to defend your right to live in dignity.

In closing, let me wish you, your families and loved ones peaceful end-of-year celebrations and a good start to the New Year. 



Warm regards,

Philippe Lazzarini

UNRWA Commissioner-General

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