REMARKS UNRWA COMMISIONER-GENERAL PHILIPPE LAZZARINI,UNRWA PLEDGING CONFERENCE

02 June 2023
UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini addresses the 2023 UNRWA Pledging Conference at the UN in New York on 2 June 2023. © 2023 UNRWA Photo

AS DELIVERED


NEW YORK

 

Mr. President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, 

 

I wish to express my appreciation to you, President of the General Assembly, for convening this Conference.   

I am also grateful to Ambassador Courtenay Rattray, Chief of Staff to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, for your presence here today and for conveying the strong message of support from the Secretary-General.

Let me also welcome Leen and Ahmad, two UNRWA students from Jordan and the Gaza Strip, respectively. They are here today to convene the voice of half a million students in UNRWA schools across the region. 

 

Ladies and gentlemen,   

UNRWA is often praised for its results and its impact on the lives of Palestine Refugees, despite many crises. 

Over the last few months, the region witnessed a new escalation in the Gaza Strip, an earthquake in Syria, unprecedented levels of violence across the West Bank, a financial meltdown in Lebanon and a slow economic recovery from COVID in Jordan.  

All throughout, UNRWA services continued to run.  

Palestine Refugee girls and boys continued to go to over 700 UNRWA schools across the region.   

Young refugees continued to study renewable energy technology and hybrid cars maintenance in our training centres.  

Close to 2 million refugees received health care in our clinics.   

Two million of the poorest received food and cash assistance.  

While running all these services, we improved service delivery through digitalization and made steps towards environmental sustainability.    

  

Mr. President,  

Palestine Refugees’ resilience in the face of adversity and displacement should not blind us from the underlying human tragedy unfolding. 

   In the Gaza Strip, beyond the destruction and the loss of lives and livelihoods, we face a psycho-social crisis with longer-term consequences.   

Half of the UNRWA students there are traumatized and need specialized support to continue learning.   

In Lebanon, growing numbers of refugees, sometimes entire families, board death boats to Europe out of despair.   

Twelve years of conflict and crisis in Syria have left many refugees with no other choice than to return to live amid the rubble of their homes with limited access to basic services.  

In this context, UNRWA services are for many refugees the only source of normality. And, in some cases, the only source of hope.  

 

Dear friends of UNRWA, 

With your support, the Agency has been one of the most successful multilateral stories in the region.  

But will it continue to be?   

We are asked to provide government-like services but are not receiving the means to do it.   

For the fourth consecutive year, we are carrying over large debts. 

  Chronic underfunding pushes us to operate under severe austerity measures.  

  It affects the quality of our services and limits our ability to respond to new challenges.  

Our education programme is unfit to effectively respond to learning losses from COVID due to lack of investment.  

Our excellent health system that reached universal vaccination, is starting to fall below WHO standards in some areas.  

Underfunding weakens the trust of staff and refugees in the Agency.  

Why have we reached this point? 

In today’s political environment, the UNRWA model of providing public-like services based on voluntary funding no longer works.  

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer a priority due to shifting geopolitical dynamics in the region and globally, and the emergence of new humanitarian crises – like in Ukraine today.  

This reality, combined with evolving domestic politics in donor countries, including growing indifference and politically motivated campaigns to discredit the Agency, have all impacted the funding of UNRWA.  

It is of great concern that some of our most committed donors have conveyed that they will significantly decrease their contributions to the Agency this year.    

Keep in mind that UNRWA is not an ordinary humanitarian or development agency that can scale up or down its programmes according to the funding it gets.  

  Our mandate calls for universal access to education and health care for Palestine Refugees in our fields of operation.  

So, what would UNRWA be expected to scale down?  

Would any of your governments ask 20 or 30 per cent of students to drop out from public schools because of shortfall of funds? 

  

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, 

As I address you today, I do not have the funds to keep our schools, health centres and other services running as of September.   

We also urgently need an additional US$ 75 million to maintain the food pipeline for over 1 million people in the Gaza Strip.  

 

And we need US$30 million to maintain cash and food assistance to 600,000 Palestine Refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. 

Failing to raise the necessary funds will have enormous human, political and security implications for the region and beyond.   

I am fully aware that you are tired of hearing year after year about the UNRWA financial crisis.   

Many of you somehow believe that we can continue to “muddle through”.  

Palestine Refugee communities believe so, too.  

But the crisis is real. 

Our biggest existential threat right now is to continue to deny the severity of the crisis we are locked into and believe that the status quo can still prevail.   

It will inevitably lead to the implosion of UNRWA.   

Closing the funding gap today is nothing compared to what it would cost to the international community should the Agency implode in the next months. 

 

Mr. President, 

I have tirelessly pointed at the impossible task to reconcile: 

  • the mandate from the General Assembly
  • Expectations of Palestine Refugees and host countries that UNRWA continues to deliver all services.  Any decrease would be perceived as abandoning Palestine Refugees’ rights;  
  • Increasing needs of refugees due to deepening poverty and conflicts; and 
  • Stagnating and unreliable resources from donors. 

 

This has become an impossible equation to overcome.

Over the last 18 months, I have worked with host countries and donors to find long-term solutions to the Agency’s financial challenges.   

We discussed expanding partnerships and seeking more multi-year funding.   

We also explored increases from the UN Regular Budget to cover operational costs.  

But none of these options will individually or collectively be the game changer that UNRWA, the refugees, host countries and the region need.  

 

In conclusion, 

Last December, the General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to renew our mandate for another three years  

Our collective commitment towards Palestine Refugees’ rights requires shared responsibility at three levels: 

First, it urgently requires the restarting of the Middle East peace process to reach a political solution. 

Second, it requires the full enjoyment by all Palestine Refugees of their most basic human rights, including the right to work. 

Third, it requires a sustainable UNRWA, in the absence of an alternative and a fair and lasting political solution. 

As we will soon mark 75 years since the Agency was established, I appeal to you to seriously reflect on ways to uphold our shared responsibility towards Palestine Refugees. 

It is high time for genuine efforts to preserve decades of investment in their human development and in regional stability.  

It is time for a reflection on our future collective duty towards Palestine refugees.

It requires political will and action to overcome the current status quo.  

Until such a time, the Agency must be sustained financially. 

I therefore appeal to you all today to provide UNRWA with the funds and predictability we need to sustain our schools, health centres and other crucial services.  

I appeal to you all to keep the hope alive for half a million children like Leen and Ahmad.  

 

Thank you.  

  

ENDs - 

Background Information: 

UNRWA is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. The United Nations General Assembly established UNRWA in 1949 with a mandate to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to registered Palestine refugees in the Agency’s area of operations pending a just and lasting solution to their plight.

UNRWA operates in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, The Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. 

Tens of thousands of Palestine refugees who lost their homes and livelihoods due to the 1948 conflict continue to be displaced and in need of support, nearly 75 years on.

UNRWA helps Palestine Refugees achieve their full potential in human development through quality services it provides in education, health care, relief and social services, protection, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance, and emergency assistance. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions.

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