Remarks by Deputy Commissioner-General Margot Ellis at the General Assembly

04 December 2014
Deputy Commissioner-General Margot Ellis
Deputy Commissioner-General Margot Ellis (second from left) at Ad Hoc Committee of the United Nations General Assembly for the Announcement of Voluntary Contributions to UNRWA (the 2015 UNRWA pledging conference)

Remarks by Deputy Commissioner-General Margot Ellis at Ad Hoc Committee of the United Nations General Assembly for the Announcement of Voluntary Contributions to UNRWA (the 2015 UNRWA pledging conference)

Ambassador Gunnarsdottir, Vice-President of the General Assembly,

Excellencies, distinguished delegates,

I have the honour to represent Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl at this year’s pledging conference for UNRWA. I would first like to express my sincere gratitude to the Ambassador and Vice-President who delivered a statement on behalf of the President.Thank you, Your Excellency, for your introductory remarks and for chairing this meeting that is of vital importance to five million Palestine refugees, who have now lived in a 65-year limbo, counting on the international community to find a solution to their plight.

In 2008, then Deputy Commissioner-General, Filippo Grandi, presciently said to this audience: “The social, humanitarian and potentially political repercussions in this already volatile region do not need to be spelled out … New financial pressures come at a precarious time.” I don’t think he, or any of us, could have predicted how true these words would ring today. The war in Syria is said to be the largest humanitarian crisis of our time, and the international community is struggling to address even the minimum of those affected.  

The occupation of Palestine continues to scar psyches, with spikes of devastating violence in Gaza, and a slow suffocation of life in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem, providing fertile ground for instability in the entire region. Crushed and delimited by these crises, Palestine refugees provide a case-study of prolonged tragedy.   In a region increasingly volatile and violent, a growing proportion of them rely on UNRWA.  

But Palestine refugees are also emblematic of hope, and the work of our Agency remains an important entry point to build the region’s human capital, building for the future, contributing to stability. Your contributions to UNRWA make this possible, and I am therefore gratified to be able to address you today to express our appreciation for your generosity.

Surveying our fields of operation, a sense of extraordinary vulnerability pervades Palestinian families and communities. Sometimes vulnerability is felt like a shock. In Syria, a relatively well-established community of Palestine refugees has been uprooted, shorn apart and scattered. The conflict continues to rage with indiscriminate ferocity. More than sixty percent of the 560,000 Palestine refugees in Syria have been and continue to be displaced, suffering worsening hardship and deprivation, terrified by the threats of serious injury or violent sudden death that are ever present.  

They have lost their accumulated investment in homes and businesses nurtured over three generations.  18,000 people remain trapped in Yarmouk, dependent on the little UNRWA is allowed to provide. There are many Yarmouk’s in Syria. Among the 12 camps alone, Khan Eshieh and Dera’a have been theatres of warfare for several months, Ein Al-Tal was emptied by force in one day, the residents of Sbeineh and Husseiniyeh have also fled. We are worried constantly about Khan Danoun and Neirab, and about access roads throughout Syria – all places where the fighting threatens our staff and our beneficiaries.  Fourteen of our staff have been killed in Syria, and twenty six are detained or missing, likely to meet a gruesome fate.

Sometimes Palestinian vulnerability is experienced as an incremental erosion, like in Jordan and Lebanon, where declining economies and regional instability marginalize refugees and host communities alike. In the West Bank, the Israeli occupation and its web of policies continue to alienate Palestinians from land and livelihoods. A system of permits and closures dissects communities, causing economic and social stagnation.    

East Jerusalem, which is part of the West Bank, is home to 300,000 Palestinians. In the last decades, almost 15,000 Palestinians have lost residency rights in East Jerusalem. Throughout the West Bank, land expropriation, home demolitions and unrelenting settlement expansion continue to threaten the very essence of Palestinian life and nationhood and undermine the hope for a just and lasting solution to the conflict. 

This insidious degradation of rights has of late been joined by spikes of violence and reckless rhetoric. Almost daily now, Palestinian and Israeli individuals tragically and reprehensibly translate their anger into deadly actions. And behind the headline lies a sharp increase also in violence by security forces.  In one week in November, OCHA reported 356 Palestinian injuries in the West Bank compared to a weekly average of 72 in 2013. So far this year, 18 Palestine refugees, including four children, were killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank. 

In Gaza, Palestinian vulnerability is felt to double effect: by the extreme material and human devastation of Israeli military campaigns, and by the destruction of economic assets and the reversal of the gains achieved over decades to improve the quality of life of many Palestinians. This summer, around 2,200 people were killed in 50 days; over 500 were children, most under age twelve. 46 of those killed were in our shelters at the time.  

We were certain as was the Palestine refugee community in Gaza, that United Nations schools were a safe refuge for families and children, especially when we had been so deliberate in letting their locations be known.  Eleven of our colleagues also lost their lives.  It is crucial that there is a reckoning for wrong-doing and disregard for international law.    

Now, a few months later, we survey the destruction.  Over 120,000 homes were damaged during the war, with thousands totally destroyed.  19,000 internally displaced persons are still sheltering in UNRWA schools. Thousands are learning to live with disability and loss of loved ones.  The whole population will bear psychological scars. This destruction was visited on families and communities already suffering 47 years of occupation and seven years of smothering blockade, which has rendered the small territory an open-air prison. 

Unemployed and frustrated men lash out at their families; youth find their dreams stifled and look desperately for ways out. A whole generation now has not left Gaza, never met an Israeli. Without personal connections between Israelis and Palestinians, how can we talk of peace?  

UNRWA welcomes the very few glimmers of hope.  Many of you have pledged generously to help with the reconstruction of Gaza. The Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism – supervised by the UN and agreed upon by Israel and the Palestinian Government – should enable the import of private sector construction material, only the second time since the blockade was imposed. This plan, however, cannot be a substitute for the lifting of the blockade. A handful of elderly worshippers were allowed to visit Jerusalem to pray at Al-Aqsa. But these are token steps, taken within an untenable and dangerous status quo.   

A precarious and tentative existence, the sense of unmet promise, fear for their children’s future – this vulnerability is felt, one way or the other, across UNRWA’s fields and by all Palestinians. The deprivations in Yarmouk in Syria reverberate in Gaza’s Khan Younis, the flattening of Shujaiyeh in Gaza struck equal terror in Burj al-Barajneh in Lebanon, Neirab in Syria and Baqa’a in Jordan.  

Our Commissioner-General, Pierre Krähenbühl, speaking at the meeting of our Advisory Commission last month, stressed the need to break the paradigm of skepticism about a lasting solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict and for Palestine refugees. He spoke about the need to provide refugee communities not only with support, but also the need for the international community to commit to take resolute political action. It is absolutely clear that without a structural improvement – without an end to occupation and to blockade – poverty, vulnerability and oppression will continue to dominate the lives of Palestine refugees in Gaza and the West Bank.

Political risks are difficult to hedge against and the volatility of our operating environment presents constant challenges. But we do try to hedge against financial risks and its effects on our operations.  Investing in the financial integrity of the Agency and ensuring transparency are critical not only to our credibility but to our ability to operate under extraordinarily challenging financial constraints. We have sought to create more predictable and more diverse sources of funding for the Agency. We are proud of the strong ties we have built over the years with new and established donors, many of whom I am happy to see in this meeting. 

The deepening of our relationships with donors is evident from the fertile discussions we have had on our draft five-year medium-term strategy at the last meeting of our Advisory Commission. This consultative process will continue as we flesh out field-level plans that outline concrete implementation. To have this kind of relationship with the Agency's major donors and host countries is a valuable strategic asset.

The Agency’s resource mobilization efforts have expanded to new regions and countries, as we increasingly engage with governments in Latin America, Asia and other parts of the world. The success of this diversification can be most clearly seen in the considerable increase in funding from Arab partners, now at $178 million, which is more than 16 per cent of our overall income.  Pledges by Saudi Arabia deserve special mention, amounting to $77 million in the last months, making Saudi Arabia our third-largest donor. We have also seen a significant increase in overall income from the private sector:  from $7.4 million in 2013, to $27.8 million (2.5 per cent of total funding) in 2014.

But income is only half of the equation.  In front of this Assembly and in other fora, we have made a commitment to scrutinize our own expenditures before seeking additional income. For 2015, we have developed a core budget of $654.5 million, which represents minimal growth (3%).  I cannot stress enough that ‘core’ means the basic services – education, health and relief and social services – that you, members of the General Assembly, have asked us to provide to Palestine refugees. 

This year, we have further cut expenditure that does not directly support this core delivery. This sounds easy:  do not drive from Jerusalem to Amman for a meeting, but set up a videoconference instead; defer or cancel training for staff.  But all such measures are long behind us. There is no fat left in the Agency budget; we are now starting to cut muscle. Austerity measures are now compromising repair and maintenance, ICT infrastructure, and retention of staff, all while demand for UNRWA services and assistance increases due to the growing vulnerability of Palestine refugees.   Stretched over several years at stringent levels, the lack of “support” investments is taking its toll.  Far from being superfluous, they are part of the life-blood of the organization and eventually it becomes critical to restore them to ensure lifesaving and development services are maintained. As we approach the end of 2014, the Agency still confronts a deficit of $35 million. We have temporarily suspended payments to creditors and already cannot but worry about 2015. 

To illustrate that point, it is instructive to look at two of our fields that are relatively stable: Jordan and Lebanon. Both are heavily affected by the crisis in Syria, but thankfully we have been able to maintain services for all refugees (including those displaced from Syria) and are even able to provide limited humanitarian assistance. What is becoming increasingly clear however – especially in this relative calm – is that the Agency is stretched beyond its means. 

More than a quarter of schools in Jordan now operate out of rented residential buildings because there are no funds to construct purpose-built schools. Drinking water is of insufficient quality in the camps of Lebanon, with old waterworks strained by the added burden of Palestine refugees from Syria. Targeting of cash assistance is a necessary measure, but with close to 65 per cent unemployment in the receiving communities in Lebanon and Jordan, any decrease in assistance is a cause of great unrest. And, again, these are relatively stable fields.  In Gaza and in Syria, we have not only lost lives, but are at risk of losing decades of investment. Underfunding has already substantially reduced assistance. Current funding trends effectively means sacrificing development and focusing solely on avoiding humanitarian disaster.  

The international community has reason to be proud of the human capital development of Palestine refugees. Now, your investments in decades of development are under threat. And this is the message I want to press upon you today.  Short-term, cost-saving measures erode long-term and hard-won development gains. Investment in development cannot be done cheaply. This links closely to the political point made earlier: development not consummated, and humanitarian issues not properly addressed, create a political reality that is a fertile ground for unrest.  Humanitarian aid and development should not be taken for granted. Disruptions of services or the perception that the international community is losing interest in UNRWA and the people we serve, should be a dangerous liability.  We will not be able to stave this off indefinitely. This is therefore a message of thanks that we want to express on behalf of our Agency. But it is also a message to strengthen that support, because it is ever more critical.   

In the West Bank, for example, our mobile health clinics reach refugees in areas that are difficult to access, including Bedouin communities. These interventions ensure that refugees do not feel forgotten; rather that UNRWA, and the international community are there in solidarity with Palestine refugees. In Gaza, we safeguarded our investment in education, ensuring that a quarter of a million children returned to school less than three weeks after the cease-fire. Throughout Syria, we reach nearly 100 per cent of our beneficiaries with cash assistance, the most flexible and dignified way of receiving aid. And in Lebanon and Jordan, Palestine refugees prepare for a productive future in our vocational training centres. In Jordan, the curriculum offered matches labour market demands so well that 96.6 per cent of students are employed immediately after graduation! That a World Bank Group study published last month showed UNRWA school children achieving higher-than-average results than their peers in public schools -- despite their socio-economic disadvantages -- is clear affirmation that we are doing something with far-reaching positive implications.  

This is but one part of the Middle East puzzle, but we have done it right and must keep it going, with your support. UNRWA is the way to effectively maintain the resilience of these most vulnerable people, Palestine refugees, throughout the Middle East. In the face of all these crises and conflict, it is also an imperative of humanitarian, political and strategic importance.

Thank you very much.

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.