Remarks by UNRWA Commissioner-General at the Geneva Executive Briefing

24 January 2023
UNRWA Commissioner General Phillipe Lazzarini briefs member states in Geneva about UNRWA financial needs for 2023 to be able to continue delivering for PalestineRefugees. 2023 UNRWA photo

Hosted by UNOG Director-General Ms Tatiana Valovaya and chaired by UNOG Chief of Staff Mr David Chizvaidze

Geneva, 24 January 20123

Final as of 240123 morning



It is definitely a pleasure to be back in Geneva, and to be invited to this Executive Briefing.

Thank you very much Director-General Mme Tatiana Valovaya for hosting me and making it tradition to have the first Executive Briefing of the year with UNRWA and to present our needs to the diplomatic community in Geneva.

And thank you, Excellencies, for your and your governments’ support to UNRWA, the UN Agency for Palestine refugees which, as you all know, is a human development Agency providing public like services and humanitarian assistance to Palestine refugees in the Middle East region.

Today, I will share with you the highlights of the Agency’s new Strategic Plan, which covers the period from 2023 to 2028.

And I will also share the budget requirements for this year, 2023, the first year of our new strategic cycle.


Dear partners,

I was in Syria last week. I went to Palestine refugee camps near Aleppo.

One of them, Ein el Tal, was almost entirely destroyed during the conflict.

It reminded me of the horrific images we saw of Yarmouk “camp” near Damascus.

It has misery of a level I have almost never witnessed in my professional career. .

One house I visited in Ein el Tal camp is home to 18 people.

It is home to a kind of humidity that creeps under the skin, especially in the cold winter of Aleppo, in the absence of any kind of heating.

Another home I visited in Neirab camp, also near Aleppo, houses a family of 12 with a disabled woman and a cancer patient.  

The cancer patient seemed to await his imminent death in the absence of any available treatment.

I also met many young people and children who are educated in UNRWA schools and vocational centers.

They managed to reverse the darkness of my visit with their energy and their ambition.

They spoke to me, in this environment, about developing apps, about digital access, about their dreams of becoming neurosurgeons, fashion designers and entrepreneurs.

These young people made me realize again how, collectively, we have achieved a lot over the last seven decades, which is the age of the Agency, the period of the displacement of Palestine refugees and the period of the longest lasting unresolved conflict.

Throughout this time, we educated over two million girls and boys. We achieved universal infant vaccination, and we reduced maternal mortality beyond global standards.

And this would not have been possible without the generosity of the countries hosting Palestine refugees and that of our many, many committed donors.

Today, UNRWA is launching its six-year strategic plan amidst unprecedented challenges.

Shifting geopolitical priorities, changed regional dynamics and the emergence of new humanitarian crises over the last decade have deprioritized the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

As a consequence, funding to the Agency has stagnated since 2012 and has become increasingly unpredictable.

This is happening at a time when the situation in the region offers few signs for positive political outcomes for Palestine refugees.

With acute socio-economic crises hitting Lebanon, Syria, the occupied Palestine territory and to a certain extent Jordan, most Palestine refugees in the region live today below the poverty line.

Last week another boat sank off the coast of Lebanon.

It was carrying Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese who were so desperate for a dignified life that the possibility of dying on the way seemed acceptable for all of them.

Reports of gender-based violence, child labour and early marriage are on the rise in most fields where we operate.

Increased violence across the West Bank, particularly in the North, is affecting the daily lives of the refugees and our capacity to deliver services.

And the spread of cholera in Syria and Lebanon some months ago was a stark reminder of the massive deterioration of the living conditions for the people.

In this context, UNRWA is often the only lifeline for millions of Palestine refugees.


Dear Partners ,

No one wants to be a refugee.

Nothing is more important for the refugees than a just and lasting political solution that addresses their situation.

This must remain the top priority of the international community, consistent with UN resolutions.

Meanwhile, the UNRWA Strategic Plan for the next six years sets ambitious targets to meet the growing and evolving needs of Palestine refugees living in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza.  

This plan will uphold the commitment of the international community – your commitment - to the wellbeing and rights of Palestine refugees.

And it will support our common interest to contribute to the stability of a region in turmoil.

Through this plan, UNRWA will continue to play an effective and indispensable role for the human development of millions of Palestine refugee.

It will do so through the provision of essential public sector-like services, including education, health care, relief and social services.

To respond to the many crises in the region, we will continue to supplement our human development services with humanitarian aid.

And we will further embed a culture of peace and tolerance, including through our education programme.

To achieve these goals, our approach and services need to be further modernized, including through increased digitalization.

Digitalization will ensure that young people acquire, in our schools and training centers, the skills and push they need to thrive in a digital world.

Young people I meet in our vocational centers across the region ask UNRWA to be their incubator to help them launch their business. They ask for micro-loans to promote entrepreneurship. 

The adequate digitalization of UNRWA internal management such as human resources, financial and procurement processes will promote greater accountability and transparency.

Modernization has the potential to generate further efficiencies.

And it will bolster our commitment to UN values and humanitarian principles.

We are not starting from scratch.

Crises such as conflicts or the COVID-19 pandemic pushed us to pioneer innovative solutions.

We have a lot to build upon and to be proud of.

At the height of the pandemic, we rolled out a digital healthcare system.

It allowed us to spearhead telemedicine and develop smartphone applications to support patients.

We also launched a digital learning platform to respond to school closures during the pandemic.

The digital platform is today highly acclaimed by UNESCO.

To achieve the goals we have set in the Strategic Plan, we must be environmentally sustainable.

We are already promoting environmentally friendly technologies in our works such as solar panels and energy efficient designs of our installations and water harvesting in the camps.

 In Jordan we are building a wheeling station that will cover 70 per cent of our energy consumption in the country.

But much more can be done to reduce the environmental impact of our operations and raise awareness within Palestine refugee communities.

In achieving our goals, we will also strengthen our rights-based approach, make our programmes more gender-sensitive and respond to the specific needs of the most vulnerable, including persons with disabilities.



Let me now turn to our financial requirements for 2023.

To continue providing essential development and humanitarian services to Palestine refugees, while meeting growing and evolving needs, UNRWA requires US $ 1.6 billion.

Of this amount, US$ 848 million is needed under our programme budget to run our public sector-like services.

These funds will allow over half a million girls and boys to pursue their education in UNRWA schools.

It will offer 8000 youth the opportunity to acquire the skills needed in the job market.

Close to 2 million refugees will have continued access to health care.

The social safety net for 400,000 poor refugees will be guaranteed.

This core 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.

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

After three years of zero-growth budgets, the 2023 programme budget represents less than 4 per cent  increase compared to 2022.


This is a modest growth in the face of major inflationary pressure across the region, sky-rocketing needs linked to earning losses, poverty and degrading public services in many of UNRWA fields of operation.

It is the bare minimum the Agency  needs to keep the same level of services.


Dear Partners,

To respond to the many humanitarian crises in the region, UNRWA is appealing for an additional US$ 782 million through two emergency appeals covering the five fields of UNRWA operations.

In Gaza we will continue to address the impact of the blockade by providing over 1 million Palestine refugees with food aid and offer short term cash for work opportunities.

We will continue to provide support to families whose homes were damaged by the August 2022 hostilities.

In the West Bank, we will continue our cash and food assistance to the most vulnerable, including those living in Area C.

We will also scale up our emergency response to support those under imminent risk of forcible displacement and those affected by violence, including settler violence, evictions or demolitions.

In a context of a deteriorating security environment across the oPt we will step up our emergency preparedness.

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.

We will expand our cash assistance programme in Lebanon to reach all Palestine refugees affected by the worsening socio-economic conditions.

And in Syria, we will prioritize the rehabilitation of key installations in Yarmouk and Ein El Tal in order to resume basic services like education and health, to support Palestine refugees who are returning in growing numbers.

UNRWA will continue to support the most vulnerable in Jordan, focusing on those who have no or limited access to public services.


Dear Friends and Colleagues,  

UNRWA is often praised for its resilience in the face of chronic underfunding and multiple crises.

Many of you might think that once again we made it through last year despite the rise in operating costs linked to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.   

And this is true.

We kept all schools and clinics open.

Over 2 million Palestine refugees received food or cash assistance.

And we managed to pay the salaries of over 28,000 UN staff on time every month.

But make no mistake, the only reason we managed was thanks to several short-term loans from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund and the last-minute additional funding of a few donors.

They responded to our calls for flexible funding, end of year top-ups and advance payments on their 2023 contributions.

The Agency ability to “muddle through” should not be taken as a given.

“Muddling through” cannot last and comes at a high cost.

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

It erodes our financial sustainability.

We also continue operating under severe austerity measures that challenge our ability to improve, modernize and go green.

This has led to a slow erosion of the quality of our services.

Classrooms are overcrowded with up to 50 children for one teacher.

Close to one out of six teachers is a daily paid, impacting the quality of education, our commitment to UN values an[AT1] d staff well-being.

About 60 per cent of UNRWA schools continue to operate on double shift.  

In this context, we struggle to respond effectively to the learning losses from COVID.

On the health side, patients barely spend three minutes with a doctor.

And we struggle to have buffer stocks of medicine in our health centers.

Underfunding prevents needed investment in depleted assets.

It prevents much needed maintenance works in our facilities, with security and health risks for the refugees and staff.

And it weakens the trust of staff and refugees in the Agency.

They ask us why quality of services are decreasing at a time of rising hardship.

They feel abandoned by the international community. And they blame UNRWA for this.

Nowhere else is this as visible as in Lebanon, where UNRWA staff face the anger, despair and at times the violence of the refugees.


Dear Partners,

The Common Agenda of the UN Secretary General requires us all to step up action to achieve the 2030 Agenda.

But UNRWA is struggling to keep its schools and clinics open.

I appealed to the UN General Assembly Member States to ensure the renewal of the mandate is not just a rubber stamp exercise.

It must come with sustainable funding solutions.

Over the last 18 months, I have worked with Hosts and Donors to find long-term funding solutions like expanding partnerships, seeking more multi-year funding and exploring increases from the UN Regular Budget to cover management costs, in line with the UN General Assembly decision.

But none of these will individually or collectively be the game changer UNRWA, refugees, Hosts and the region need.

Achieving the strategic goals that we have collectively set, requires shared responsibility.

Our shared responsibility towards Palestine refugees was most obviously expressed when the UNRWA mandate renewal got an overwhelming vote at the UN General Assembly last December. 

But responsibility does not stop there.

We must step up joint efforts to ensure the full enjoyment by all Palestine refugees of their most basic rights, including the right to work.

We also need a triple path of financing:

First, we need sufficient, sustainable and predictable financial resources to continue to deliver public like services.     

Second, we need to cover urgent humanitarian needs, including cash and food assistance.

Third, we need a series of one-time investments to restore depleted assets, achieve our modernization and environmental goals, and invest in our fundraising capacity.   


Dear Colleagues and Partners,,

UNRWA is not a solution to an unresolved political situation.

Nor is it sufficient to address the rising humanitarian needs of Palestine refugees.

The failure to find political solutions to the many man-made crises in the region will continue to push growing numbers into poverty and despair.

Only political solutions can put an end to this descent into the abyss.

Until then, I am calling for continued and adequate support to UNRWA, to enable us to maintain and improve the health, education and social protection services to Palestine refugees.

As we approach the 75th commemoration of the mandate, we should reflect on how we want to live up to our commitment to Palestine refugees until there is a just and lasting solution to their plight.  

I thank you for your attention and I look forward to our exchange.


Thank you Chair.

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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