Speech by UNRWA Deputy Commissioner-General Margot Ellis at 2013 Pledging Conference

04 December 2012

4 December 2012

United Nations, New York

Mr. Vice-President of the General Assembly, Excellencies, Distinguished delegates,

I have the honour today to represent Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi at this year’s Pledging Conference for UNRWA.

At the outset, I wish to express my deep appreciation to H.E. Ismael Abraao Gaspar Martins, Vice-President of the General Assembly and  Permanent Representative of Angola, for chairing this meeting today. I thank you for your gracious and supportive welcoming remarks, which reflect the strong support UNRWA receives from Member States of the United Nations. 

I also wish to congratulate Palestine on the historic achievement of obtaining non-member observer state status at the United Nations on 29 November 2012, the 65th anniversary of GA Resolution 181.

It has been one year since I last stood here to brief you on UNRWA’s operations. Events on the ground throughout the region have unfortunately made it an even more challenging, and in many respects, a tragic 12 months.

Palestine refugees have had to endure a year of intense conflict in Syria, violence in Gaza, added political instability everywhere and increasing levels of economic hardship placing further burdens on their ability to take full control over their lives.

Their decades-long wait for peace and a just and lasting solution to their plight continues. 

In the meantime, Palestine refugees remain reliant on UNRWA to provide them with the building blocks to develop their potential, and on the hospitality of host authorities to give them an arena in which they can make best use of their potential. 

As I said earlier, 2012 has been a very difficult year for Palestine refugees.

The recent 8-day conflict in Gaza caused unnecessary death, injury and fear to civilian populations in both Israel and Gaza. The relentless shelling of Gaza, including refugee camps, had a deep impact on refugees. One UNRWA staff member and one student were killed, UNRWA infrastructure damaged, and 12,000 refugees sought shelter in 14 of our schools. We are pleased that the ceasefire remains intact, and grateful to the parties, especially the Government of Egypt, who contributed to its achievement.

However, this recent escalation brings to light the need for the international community to re-engage and seek a solution to the situation in Gaza. Of paramount importance is the lifting of the blockade, which has been particularly severe in the past five years, notwithstanding welcome, but limited easing measures adopted by the Government of Israel in 2010. UNRWA continues to work with the Government of Israel but is concerned that Israel permits importation of only the bare minimum of goods for much-needed reconstruction of UNRWA installations and refugee shelters. In such circumstances, Gaza cannot overcome its grinding poverty nor be economically sustainable without free movement of goods and people. 

As noted in the UN’s Gaza 2020 report, maintenance of the status quo in Gaza will lead to a bleak near-term future for the Strip’s infrastructure, natural resources, economy and the welfare of its people. While UNRWA shoulders the burden of a refugee population of 1.2 million in Gaza, including a growing school-age population, and remains committed to addressing emerging needs, the real solution is urgent and reliant on political action on the part of the international community.

Similarly, Palestinians, including Palestine refugees, in the West Bank require greater protection and opportunities to fulfill their potential. At present, settlement expansion, settler violence, land expropriation, building prohibitions, increased demolitions, movement restrictions, and limitations placed on herding communities serve to alienate Palestinians from their land and livelihoods on a daily basis. The Agency will continue to seek to improve its services to refugees, but for your investments to bear fruit, the present trends in the West Bank must be reversed.

The situation in Syria is alarming, particularly for the 520,000 Palestine refugees that reside there. These refugees, who traditionally have been sheltered by a protective neutrality, are increasingly affected by the conflict.  UNRWA’s concerns about the welfare of Palestine refugees are growing, especially in and around Damascus, where refugees face escalating violence at their doorstep. Historically among the poorest groups in Syria, Palestine refugees have further suffered from the economic collapse. Many have been displaced from their homes, and many have had to accommodate displaced persons. Our fear is that as violence continues, Palestine refugees will be increasingly drawn into the conflict, thereby placing them at risk of targeted attacks.  

I should also add that at one stage, approximately 10,000 mostly Syrian IDPs sought shelter in UNRWA schools throughout Syria. This figure has now decreased to around 3,000 IDPs, but numbers fluctuate on a weekly basis.

We have seen over the course of the Syrian conflict an increased number of Palestine refugees fleeing to Lebanon and Jordan to seek temporary protection. So far, we know that approximately 10,000 Palestine refugees have fled to Lebanon and are aware of 2,200 Palestine refugees who have sought refuge in Jordan. We call on neighbouring countries to open their borders for Palestine refugees seeking shelter and safety, and to uphold the principle of non-refoulement and equal treatment of all refugees. We also recognise the increasing burden of the Syria crisis on neighbouring states and encourage further international support to relieve this burden.

We are grateful for the support shown by the international community towards Palestine refugees in Syria. So far, 56 per cent of the USD53 million requested for our regional response plan has been contributed or pledged.  But this is not enough. More resources are needed to allow us to continue providing much-needed cash assistance, non-food items, and emergency health and sanitation services to more than 350,000 Palestine refugees now affected by the conflict. Particularly acute are the needs for shelter and warm clothing as the winter sets in.

Moreover, we are working to ensure that educational materials are provided and education continues, despite the in-conflict situation. We fear that without such efforts, children will drop out of school permanently, contributing to a lost generation of youth in Syria. As the conflict continues and an increasing number of Palestine refugees become affected, further funds will be required. Thus, in conjunction with other UN agencies, we will be developing a revised regional response plan which will be shared with your capitals in the coming weeks.

As the Agency responds to the emergency needs of Palestine refugees from Syria in Jordan and Lebanon, we continue our regular provision of essential services such as education and health to Palestine refugees already resident in these countries. As Jordan, which hosts the largest Palestine refugee population of 2.1 million persons, addresses serious political, economic, and social issues, the Agency continues to do its utmost to provide services to Palestine refugees, though challenges do present themselves with respect to rising costs.

In Lebanon, the Agency continues to provide a wider range of services to Palestine refugees, who remain one of the most marginalised groups in the country. At the same time, the Agency continues reconstruction of the underfunded Nahr el-Bared camp in northern Lebanon. Two packages out of the total of eight have been handed over to refugees, with construction of parts of the 3rd package now underway. By May 2013, six years after the destruction of the camp, only 22.5 per cent of refugees will have returned back to their homes.

Funding for the reconstruction of this camp is crucial.  We have only received 49 per cent of the total funding. USD174.5 million is still required to meet all remaining construction needs. As refugees continue their displacement, we continue to provide them with emergency support through our relief appeal – this also requires funding, with USD13.4 million required in 2013 alone. At the same time, the Agency also seeks funds for its Restoring Dignity Appeal, which covers crucial programmes (such as youth employability and shelter rehabilitation for vulnerable refugees) not covered by our General Fund. For 2013, USD$29.6 million is required. 

Our primary objective, in periods of both conflict and calm, is to ensure full delivery of our services to Palestine refugees. It is on this note that I must express my pride for how our staff have responded to the challenges in front of them. During the recent escalation in Gaza, all our services, except for our schools, continued despite relentless bombardment. Nineteen out of 21 health centres were open, food was distributed, garbage collected and even though our schools were closed, our educational satellite TV station beamed lessons to children so that, even at home, they could receive an education.  This same commitment is now a daily feature of our operations in Syria, where our 3800 staff throughout the country continue to teach, provide medical treatment and to support the most vulnerable, despite the grave risks to their safety. 

Tragically, during the course of this past year, we have lost five staff members in Syria and one staff member in Gaza as a result of the violence.  All were involved in our education programme, and our thoughts go to their families as they grieve their loss.

During these periods of conflict, my colleagues have also lost children, relatives, and friends, their houses have been destroyed, and they have been displaced. Yet, they still turn up at work and show an extraordinary commitment to ensure our service delivery goes uninterrupted. I am deeply humbled by the heroism shown by my colleagues, and proud to serve with them.

Our commitment towards improving services for refugees surpasses what we do in  emergency situations. The Agency’s core work revolves around providing quality education to approximately half a million students, running a network of 138 health centres across the region that cater to the primary health needs of refugees, extending microfinance loans to build financially independent Palestine refugees, providing much needed food and cash assistance to the most vulnerable, and improving living conditions in camps. These are the building blocks that have, for more than sixty years, enabled thousands of refugees to graduate from poverty, not be reliant on aid, and attain full personal self-sufficiency. But, we recognise that we can, and must, improve the services we provide across the Agency, and so extensive work is being done to achieve such qualitative improvements.

Our Education Reform programme, launched last year, continues developing global best practice tools, policies, and systems to improve teacher training, school management, inclusive education, and research methodologies. With implementation of these reforms starting now at the field level, we look forward to creating a better learning environment for students that will foster independent thinking among students and promote empowerment of teachers, so that Palestine refugees are better equipped to face the growing challenges ahead. 

Likewise, in health, we are working to improve the quality, efficiency, and effectiveness of service delivery. Our new Family Health Team approach to primary healthcare will provide refugees with a more comprehensive and personal treatment at the clinic level and enable doctors and nurses to spend more qualitative time with patients. Our e-health system will also enable us to better track and access refugee health records and manage drug supplies – it will also allow refugees to access any health clinic safe in the knowledge that their records will be updated and available regardless of where they choose to go.

One area where we need to do more is in addressing poverty. Today we are able to reach only a small fraction of vulnerable refugees with assistance and this assistance is not enough to make a significant difference. The fact is that more and more Palestinians are becoming impoverished and not enough is being done. Yet transformation to best-practice approaches to poverty relief is currently out of reach because the transformation requires considerable financial investment. However, we are poised to set this in motion should Agency finances allow. 

On the management front, we have continued with far-reaching reforms. Our transition to international public sector accounting standards (IPSAS) has been completed successfully, we have improved the Agency’s internal resource allocation mechanism, undertaken a series of reforms to improve executive management, and have made important steps towards implementing an ERP system, including reaching a partnership agreement with WFP.

We are confident that our reform efforts will bear fruit, both on programmatic and managerial fronts. An external evaluation of our Organisational Development programme has demonstrated that most first steps towards comprehensive management reform undertaken since 2006 have been successful, and we remain committed to continue exploring all avenues to make the Agency more effective and efficient.

Distinguished delegates,

Our biggest challenge is ensuring that we have sufficient funding to adequately serve Palestine refugees. In 2012, we started the year with a deficit to our General Fund of USD97.5 million. Thanks to extraordinary contributions from some Member States and our ability to rein in expenditure and implement a series of strictly-enforced austerity measures, our deficit now stands at USD21 million; and we forecast that with anticipated additional incoming contributions and advances on 2013 contributions, we will just be able to cover this deficit this year. But it has been a very nerve-wracking journey to get to this point.

For 2013, we have developed a core budget of USD657 million and our forecasts estimate that we will start the year with a deficit of approximately USD69 million. Austerity measures will need to continue, and we will maintain the high degree of expenditure oversight we have successfully undertaken this year. We will however have to reach out and raise further funding.  We hope that the same strong support shown by Member States in 2012 will continue into the new year.

Distinguished delegates,

I would like to take advantage of this conference to thank the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Australia, who are, overall, the top ten major donors to the Agency.

I am pleased to note that we have achieved considerable success in attracting new donors. The Russian Federation has announced that it will contribute USD2 million. We thank them for their trust and hope that is only the beginning of a long-term cooperation. Brazil and Turkey have made new sizeable contributions towards the Agency and Indonesia, Malaysia, and South Africa have also registered significant increases. Funding from Arab Donors has also grown from a 2 per cent share of our General Fund contributions in 2009 to a 4 per cent share this year.

More significantly, when factoring in emergency and project contributions, Arab donor funding towards UNRWA now amounts to almost 10 per cent of total donor funding to the Agency. This is a positive move, but more can be done by Arab States to reach the League of Arab States’ target of 7.8 per cent of General Fund contributions. We have also set up a private partnerships unit in the Agency and are working towards obtaining more funding from foundations, corporations, and individual donors.

These are steps in the right direction. However we need to build upon the level of funding from present and new donors.  We look forward to engaging with Member States on this issue in the months to come, and in particular appeal to Member States from Latin America, Asia, and the Arab region to substantially increase their contributions to the Agency. Let me emphasise also that multi-year financial commitments by donors, whenever feasible, greatly help the Agency to plan its activities and provide a solid foundation for its work.

Looking ahead, we foresee a challenging 2013. Our hopes are that the present conflicts in the region are swiftly resolved, that all civilians, including Palestine refugees, can enjoy peace and stability and that progress is made in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

Distinguished delegates,

The fact that Palestine refugees have been able to retain hope and aspirations in a year like 2012 speaks volumes for their resilience and determination to succeed, as individuals, and as a collective. While they wait for peace, it is incumbent upon us to continue, without pause, to provide them with the tools and means to build their lives now, and secure, for generations to come, a future where these hopes and aspirations are not dreamt of, but realised. 

For our part, we remain totally committed to providing constant and improved services to the men, women, and children of the Palestine refugee community we serve. To do this we need your steadfast support. We look also to Member States of the United Nations to find a just and lasting solution to the question of Palestine refugees and to stand with us beside them as they wait for peace.

On behalf of the Commissioner-General, I thank you for your continuous support and for your ever-present generosity.

Thank you.

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.