Remarks by UNRWA Commissioner-General at the Geneva Executive Briefing

18 January 2022
© 2022 UNRWA Photo

Your Excellencies,

It is a great pleasure to be here with you today. This is my first Executive Briefing in Geneva since I took up my role as Commissioner- General of UNRWA in April 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

My gratitude goes to Director-General Mme Tatiana Valovaya for hosting this Executive Briefing and to Mme Lidiya Gregoreva for moderating the event.    

I am here today to present to you the budget for 2022 for UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.

As you just saw in the video, in 2022, UNRWA will provide critical humanitarian and human development services for a total of nearly 1.6 billion USD.

This will allow us to provide quality education, primary healthcare, social safety net and humanitarian assistance, while continuing to combat, contain and prevent COVID-19 in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

This figure of nearly US $ 1.6 billion covers all the activities of the Agency, with  US$ 806 million going to the core programme budget, and US $ 770 million supporting emergency humanitarian assistance for those who are affected by conflicts, occupation, violence and recurrent crises in the region.

As you know, UNRWA is often the only constant for millions of Palestine refugees in a region that seems to be in perpetual agitation.

The Agency’s role is regularly perceived as a pillar of regional stability and a lifeline of one of the most vulnerable communities in the region.

Nearly two million Palestine refugees across the region rely on UNRWA as the only steady source of support for their most basic needs, including food and shelter.

Let me also thank here Host countries who over decades have generously hosted Palestine refugees.

UNRWA prevents them from falling deeper into poverty and from resorting to negative coping mechanisms, such as child labor, early marriage, migration through dangerous routes or, at times, radicalization.  

As the largest direct service provider, UNRWA has made a critical contribution to the human development of millions of Palestine refugees for over seven decades.

From educating more than two million Palestine refugees, to universal infant vaccination and reduced maternal mortality, exceeding global standards most of the times, UNRWA services aim at ensuring that no Palestine refugee is left behind, and this is our commitment to Agenda 2030.

By being a consistent, predictable and reliable source of quality services, UNRWA has been a source of stability in the lives of millions throughout the years.

To alleviate the impact of conflicts, occupation, blockade, economic fallout, and more recently a global pandemic, UNRWA has regularly supplemented its human development services with humanitarian assistance.

For US$ 1.6 billion, the donor and humanitarian community will support an agency that exemplifies - and here I use the jargon that we use in the humanitarian community - the triple nexus of development, humanitarian and peace.

 

Excellencies,

The situation for Palestine refugees has unfortunately significantly deteriorated in 2021, which means increased needs and increased reliance on UNRWA services.

Last May, Palestine refugees in Gaza lived through a fourth conflict in 12 years. It destroyed many lives, hopes, homes and livelihoods.

Fifteen years of blockade result today in an acute unemployment rate of over 50 per cent, with 70 per cent amongst the youth in the street.

Psychosocial distress is rampant in the Gaza Strip, particularly among children. It requires special care to preserve their ability to learn and keep their dreams alive.

The security and socio-economic situation in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, deteriorated in 2021, with record high levels of tensions and violence, including by settlers, that permeate the daily life of Palestine refugees. 

The unprecedented financial and economic collapse of Lebanon pushed over 70 per cent of Palestine refugees from Lebanon below the poverty line. Access to employment, daily commodities, medicines and hospital care is a constant, constant struggle.

Despair and hopelessness are widespread among the youth, many of whom report their readiness to take perilous migration routes that might help them start a new life elsewhere.

In Syria, 10 years of conflict have left the country and its economy shattered. Over 90 per cent of Palestine refugees in Syria live under the poverty line. The continuous economic decline heavily affects their purchasing power. Many report struggling to find even one meal a day.

Displaced refugees are frustrated at the slow pace of their return to their homes in demolished refugee camps and gatherings.

Jordan, considered as the most stable country in the region, suffers the effect of events in the West Bank and the long-term impact of the war in Syria. The socio-economic impact of COVID-19 is widespread, especially on the most vulnerable. A growing number of refugees approach UNRWA for financial assistance. Reports of growing child labour and child marriage are particularly of concern.

 

Excellencies,

US$ 806 million is the bare minimum that UNRWA needs to sustain quality services to Palestine refugees and contribute to the attainment of the SDGs for one of the most underprivileged communities in the region.

This will allow over half a million girls and boys to pursue their education in our schools.

It will offer 8,000 youth attending UNRWA technical and vocational education centers the opportunity to acquire the skills they need to build their future.

It will ensure close to two million patients receive primary health care and will protect the social safety net of 400,000 of the poorest Palestine refugees.

This budget will ensure that UNRWA can promote gender equality, women empowerment and disability inclusion. It will allow us to combat violence against women and children as well as sexual exploitation and abuse.

And these funds will improve the living conditions of refugees in overcrowded refugee camps across the region.

These services will be supplemented by humanitarian interventions to address the most acute needs of Palestine refugees across the region. For this, the Agency additionally requires US$ 770 million under its humanitarian emergency appeals.

With these funds, UNRWA will continue to provide food aid to nearly 60 per cent of the population in Gaza. We will seek to create more employment opportunities, even if on a short-term basis, to mitigate the effects of unemployment, targeting women and youth.

In response to the last conflict in May, we have stepped up mental and psycho-social care and are providing assistance to those refugees whose homes have been damaged or destroyed.  As UNRWA schools are among the few places where civilians can seek shelter in times of conflict, we are strengthening our emergency preparedness. 

In the West Bank, we will continue our food and cash assistance to the poorest and conflict-affected refugees, including to Bedouin communities and those that face home demolitions and evictions.

Close to half a million Palestine refugees impacted by the conflict in Syria, whether they remained in Syria or fled to Lebanon or Jordan, will receive cash and food assistance to meet their most basic needs like shelter and food on top of protection services.

Some Palestine refugee families that were displaced from the famous Yarmouk camp have returned to live among debris and the risk of explosive remnants of war. They had no other option as they can no longer afford to pay rent or stay with relatives.

Yarmouk, Ein el Tal and other Palestine refugee camps are almost entirely destroyed, razed to the ground, the sight is unimaginable, and yet I saw school children walking to school buses that we made available to them to continue their learning.

UNRWA aims to rehabilitate three of its key installations to provide essential services, including health and education to those who have returned to Yarmouk and Ein el Tal camps in Damascus and Aleppo.  

In Lebanon, almost everyone is suffering today.  We must be able to expand our cash assistance and support the most vulnerable in accessing health care.

UNRWA will continue to support the most vulnerable Palestine refugees in Jordan, who have been hit hard by the pandemic, focusing on those who have no or limited access to public services. We will also increase our protection services related to the precarious status faced by some Palestine Refugees.

Across the region, we will also continue to adapt our services to the reality of the pandemic and ensure that they continue, even during lockdown. Our health centres will also continue to support the roll-out of national vaccination campaigns.

 

Ladies and gentlemen,

UNRWA constantly strives to improve and innovate, as demonstrated during the pandemic.

Almost overnight, our staff switched to telemedicine and home delivery of food and medicine. We launched a digital learning platform to help children learn at home during lockdowns, building on our pioneering Education in Emergency programme in the Middle East. 

We want to build on our pandemic response.

We have been able to quickly switch to remote solutions and avoid significant interruptions of services thanks to the fact that we are direct service provider and that our staff comes from the community we support,

We are developing an ambitious modernization plan for the Agency, where digitalization will greatly improve the quality and efficiency of our services.

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.

Already today Palestine refugees are providing high quality IT services to a growing list of clients worldwide from Gaza. This global IT support was incubated in our offices in Gaza.

Finally, 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.

 

Dear colleagues,

UNRWA is committed to implementing a mandate that is overwhelmingly supported by the UN General Assembly.

We are committed to achieving the 2030 Agenda and addressing rising humanitarian needs.

We also remain committed to doing our part to support regional stability and the quest for peace.

And we are committed to remaining cost-efficient, agile and highly principled.

But years of underfunding of the UNRWA Programme Budget make it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to continue working on all fronts.

For over a decade, UNRWA managed underfunding by depleting its reserves and introducing efficiency measures, then austerity and cost control measures.

And since 2019 we have also carried over large liabilities and debts from one year to the other.

In 2022, we started with a debt of US $ 62 million, whilst the norm in any other comparable agency or international organisation should be to start a year with at least three months of operational reserve.

Austerity and cost-control measures have reached their limit.

Austerity reaches its limit when we put 50 children in a classroom or leave the most deprived children without transportation or stationery. These children will most likely drop out of school.

Austerity reaches its limit when a doctor can only spend three minutes with a patient.

And austerity reaches its limits when -month after month-  the Agency does not know if it will be able to pay the salaries of more than 28,000 staff and, as a direct consequence, critical services to millions of refugees across the region.

So, today UNRWA faces an existential crisis.

If the growing tension between, on one hand, the costs of the services that UNRWA is expected to deliver to millions of Palestine refugees and on the other hand, the resources being made available are not addressed, the Agency faces the risk of collapsing like a “house of cards”.

This could deprive half a million children from being educated. It could cut access to primary health care to millions.

Disruption in UNRWA services can increase frustration and despair among already distressed Palestine refugees.

Disruption in UNRWA services will deepen a sense of being abandoned by the international community. That feeling is fed by years of underfunding, regional dynamics and repeated politically motivated attacks against the Agency and against Palestine Refugees’ fundamental rights.

Despair and frustration are a dangerous cocktail in an unstable environment like the Middle East.

The interruption of UNRWA services can create 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.

Time is running out to reconcile the political support to the UNRWA mandate with the funds being made available to implement services.

Decades of investment in excellent services now risk being reversed.

But we can still avoid this.

It requires collective responsibility.

It also requires political commitment and bold decisions.

To be successful, the Agency needs sufficient, predictable and sustainable funding.

It also needs more flexible funding across different budget portals in line with good donorship.

No one wants to be a refugee. Supporting them until a just and lasting solution, is a collective responsibility of the Members States of the United Nations. 

I want to close with two names:

Loay is a former UNRWA student in Gaza and is today an engineer at NASA. You may have heard his name when the helicopter went to Mars last year: he was in the team that managed this mission to Mars.

And Maria: whom I met in Ein el-Hilweh where she was in tears when she described her fear that the destitution that her family and community live in will prevent her dream of joining Oxford university.  Maria and her five siblings struggle to keep up with distance learning from their mother’s smartphone with limited internet access.

And I believe that together, we can help Maria achieve her dream by ensuring that she can get the minimum that any child around the world needs to be able to learn: go to school, have a smart device when learning remotely, be healthy and feel safe in your own home.

Today, I ask you, as Member States, to help Maria and many others stay hopeful that they too can have a successful future.

I ask you to match your political support to UNRWA with financial resources.  This is one of the surest ways to contribute to regional stability and to the rights of Palestine refugees.

 

Thank you.

For more information, please contact: