Statement of the Commissioner-General to the UNRWA Advisory Commission

15 June 2015
UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl (second from left) speaking at the biannual UNRWA Advisory Commission meeting in Amman, Jordan. © 2015 UNRWA Photo by Alaa Ghosheh
Opening Statement of UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl at the UNRWA Advisory Commission meeting held in Amman, 15 June 2015

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Vice Chairman, Distinguished Delegates, Colleagues:

It is an honour to be present at this advisory commission meeting here in Amman. I wish to thank Jordan for once again generously hosting us. Special appreciation is owed to H.E. Mr. Mohammed al-Momani, State Minister for Media Affairs and Communication and acting Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for his presence here and for his support to UNRWA.

I wish also to seize this opportunity to thank H.E. Per Orneus for his remarkable engagement in recent months for the cause of Palestine refugees and UNRWA. At the end of this meeting, Sweden will be handing the chair of the Advisory Commission over to Syria and I want to thank Sweden for its leadership over the past year. Syria will be supported by Switzerland as Vice-Chair; Switzerland continues to Chair the Sub-Committee with support from Jordan and the United States as Vice-Chairs. I also would like to welcome Brazil and the United Arab Emirates as new full members of the Advisory Commission.

Allow me also to bring to your attention a number of key personnel changes in my senior management team. Sandra Mitchell in March assumed responsibilities as Deputy Commissioner-General, enriching the decision-making and implementation capacity of my office. Uta Boelhoff has joined as the new Director of External Relations and Communications, Matthias Schmale as Director for Lebanon, Thierry Rajaobelina as Director of Internal Oversight, and Omar Rifai as head of the Arab Partnership unit.

As we welcome them warmly, we also bid a fond farewell to Bob Turner, who has been a tenacious and effective leader of our operations in Gaza for three years, and Bernard Laufenberg, who as Director of Finance has done much to upgrade the quality and transparency of UNRWA’s financial management and reporting.

Ladies and gentlemen, we meet at a most challenging time and my statement will focus on describing what UNRWA sees as the greatest challenges and opportunities at present and in months to come. Before doing so, allow me to link this session with one that took place two weeks ago in New York, specifically in the Trusteeship Council Chamber at UNHQ. On 2 June, a conference was held marking 65 years since UNRWA began its operations.

It was a privilege to see Palestine refugees and UNRWA honoured on that day in the presence of Member States of the General Assembly of the United Nations which created us under Resolution 302 (IV) of December 1949. Six months later, in May 1950, we were delivering services to more than 700,000 Palestine refugees in what remain our five areas of operation – Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Most of us were not yet born then and those who were just going through their first years in school.

I asked participants and ask you today: If you were given 30 seconds to describe landmarks of human history since 1950, what would they list? The Korean War and the start of the Cold War; desegregation in the United States; uprisings in Europe in the 1960s and in the Arab world in the 2010s; the end of colonialism and apartheid; the rise and fall of dictatorships in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa; the Berlin Wall built and brought down; and the destruction of the towers. Genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda. Olympic Games in 15 cities and football World Cups in 17 countries. And throughout this entire period, Palestine refugees have remained refugees.

UNRWA at 65 requires a necessary moment of reflection, on three main fronts:

  • On what it means to be a Palestine refugee today
  • On the achievements of the Agency
  • On being a living reminder of the failure to resolve a protracted human crisis

Palestine refugees today face an existential crisis on many fronts. In Palestine, they are approaching 50 years of occupation.

Being a Palestine refugee in Gaza today means being a victim of a blockade that affects every aspect of one’s life and being dependent on food aid while being educated and wishing to be self–sufficient.

Being a Palestine refugee in Aida camp near Bethlehem today means living under the fear of daily incursions and detentions by the Israeli Army and the anguish of denied access to opportunities.

Being a Palestine refugee in Yarmouk today means being a resident trapped by a merciless siege and bombardments and violence, deprived of regular access to water, food, electricity and basic health. When I visited Yarmouk in March, you could see the suffering and hunger etched into the people's faces.

Being a Palestine refugee in Nahr el-Bared in Lebanon today means trying to cope with the frustration of still living in a miserable temporary shelter eight years after the destruction of the camp.

We speak today of over 5 million registered Palestine refugees in the region. That equates to the population of Norway or Singapore.

Their isolation, exclusion and dispossession represent a time bomb for the region, a denial of dignity and rights that must be addressed.

Reflecting on UNRWA at 65 also means reviewing some of the outstanding achievements made over the decades with the support of hosts and donors and with the refugees themselves.

Since I joined UNRWA a little over a year ago, I have found deeply impressive the performance of the Agency in times of crisis and emergencies, for example in Gaza or Syria.

The entire Palestine refugee population in Syria has been exposed to the relentless violence. Of the estimated 560,000 refugees living there before the conflict erupted, over half have been displaced; 60,000 have fled to Lebanon and Jordan.

With little space to improve conditions on the ground in this grim landscape, UNRWA is making remarkable efforts to deliver assistance to almost all Palestine refugees in the country. Against all odds, our colleagues have been delivering assistance to displaced from Yarmouk and to refugees in camps in Aleppo, Deraa, Homs and Rif Damascus.

This year, attendance in our schools is up slightly, an exceptional development that we will attempt to encourage further where conditions permit. Where schools are not accessible, we continue to resort to alternative means to sustain education, including self-learning materials. Moreover, through health points, we are increasing the accessibility of health care. 

These achievements have come at a profound cost, with 14 staff lost since 2011 and another 25 detained or missing.

In the Gaza Strip, the entire population of 1.8 million – among them 1.2 million refugees – has endured three major conflicts in the last 5 years, in addition to the long-term blockade.

During the 2014 conflict in Gaza, we sheltered 300,000 displaced persons in 90 of our school buildings. We provided life-saving aid to them under the extreme circumstances of war.

Land and air bombardment destroyed 9,000 homes and severely damaged another 5,000.

This also came at a considerable cost for UNRWA as we lost 11 staff members.

Almost one year after the start of last summer’s conflict, not a single entirely destroyed home has been rebuilt in Gaza. Reconstruction must be initiated at scale, as a humanitarian and political priority. UNRWA has shown that concrete change is possible. Thanks to donor support, some 60,000 households have been able to repair light damage sustained in the conflict.

As difficult as the situations are in our various fields, we continue to make progress in different areas. Our Family Health Team medical reform is a success story, rolled out to every health centre in Lebanon, and in the West Bank 90 per cent of our clinics have implemented the approach, which has been received positively by beneficiaries.

Our commitment to human rights education remains firm, and in the West Bank all of our 97 schools have completed the human rights and conflict resolution toolkit. And in Marka camp in Jordan, in partnership with UNICEF, we are pursuing an innovative community-driven project to instil resilience among some of the most marginalized communities in the country.

Our field directors will of course provide more detailed updates about developments in their respective areas.

Taking into account all that UNRWA continues to achieve, I would like to underscore again the great significance of something that even our closest partners underestimate: the fact that with their support, UNRWA has contributed to one of the most remarkable dynamics of human capital development in the Middle East. Our health and education standards remain among the highest in the region.

Seven hundred schools run by UNRWA with 22,000 education staff for 500,000 boys and girls – an astonishing achievement. This is the equivalent of running the education services of the city of San Francisco, but in areas experiencing war, occupation and blockade. 

One hundred and thirty one clinics run by UNRWA with 4,000 health staff for an annual average of 3 million people served.

These services are made possible by the dedication, resolve and courage of UNRWA staff, often carrying out their activities under dangerous – or very dangerous – conditions. They deserve the highest respect.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I noted at the outset of my statement that these are challenging times. I underlined the existential nature of the crisis facing Palestine refugees.

This crisis is the result of the political failure and lack of will to politically resolve the occupation, blockade and the conflict opposing Israel and Palestine. This has caused the extreme duration of the plight of Palestine refugees. This crisis is compounded by the massive and growing instability in the Near and Middle East.

This is a time when UNRWA is facing its most serious financial crisis ever. It is a crisis that affects not only our core activities in education and health, but our emergency appeals and projects as well. Currently, we face a funding shortfall for core activities to cover the year 2015 of US$ 101 million. In other words, we can pay salaries and cover activities only into September.

But things are indeed not better in terms of emergency funding. At present, funding for our Syria appeal for 2015 is only 27 per cent. As a result, we have had to scale back the frequency and amount of cash assistance that is distributed to refugees in Syria in situations of extreme vulnerability.

In Lebanon, this means Palestine refugees from Syria are not receiving assistance towards housing, gravely affecting families without the means to secure shelter. Allow me to be perfectly honest here: I find this deeply disturbing. It is not that we do not have access or the ability to implement. We simply do not have the money. Our Gaza reconstruction appeal for US$ 720 million has received approximately US$ 216 million in pledges – we are urgently appealing for funds to enable reconstruction to move forward.

During the November Advisory Commission meeting and in the context of our discussions on the MTS, I described what our strategy would be to address some of the structural dimensions of UNRWA’s financial situation:

  • Approach you, our key partners, to stabilize, and where possible, increase contributions
  • Engage new partners, state and private, to obtain new funding
  • Adopt measures, which we called management commitments, to address some of our financial problems. Here I am referring to measures beyond what is listed in the MTS.

As we meet here today and tomorrow, we need to have a sincere exchange on the parameters of these challenges. 

Let me begin with the internal steps we are considering.

First we need to be extremely honest about our financial situation. Inside UNRWA there exists a sense of ‘déjà vu’, including at times among senior staff. There is a sense that UNRWA every year speaks about a deficit and in the end somehow manages to cover it. I have told staff and repeat here today that the situation is far more serious than that, that this is the biggest deficit we have ever faced and that doing nothing about it internally is not an option.

So, I have instructed the Deputy Commissioner-General to lead an exercise to work on concrete ways to reduce some of our costs, without affecting services. The measures decided are in three main areas:

  • Reviewing the annual class formation exercise and considering the class ceiling norm used to determine the number of teachers required for our purpose-built schools. For the past few years, UNRWA has used a planning figure of between 40-45; we are considering reinstating the planning figure of 50. I want to stress this does not mean we will have 50 children in every classroom. 
  • A recruitment freeze on posts financed by the General Fund with the only exception being posts critical for the direct delivery of services to Palestine refugees.
  • A review and reduction of international consultancies.

These are big steps and they hurt. But we believe they are necessary as part of our responsible approach to our financial situation. Following the announcement of these measures, there have been reactions from staff, camp committees, parties, hosts and media, in some cases with very understandable and legitimate points of concerns. In others, on the basis of erroneous interpretations or misunderstandings.

Last week, management and unions had very robust exchanges on these issues. These were constructive sessions, but they were sensitive and emotional for all involved. We have asked one of the Union representatives to address the Advisory Commission today to convey to this gathering how these steps are being seen by Unions.

To all concerned, I wish to say this:

Palestine refugees represent the essence of what UNRWA stands for, and the measures we are pursuing are designed to strengthen our ability to assist and protect the refugees, by improving further our cost effectiveness and our credibility in the eyes of all stakeholders on whom UNRWA relies for support.

The management team of UNRWA takes this financial deficit extremely seriously and we must take painful steps to bring down the running costs for the Agency. Increasing class sizes, ending international consultancies and imposing a hiring freeze are difficult steps but, and I want to insist on this, they do not amount to a reduction of services to refugees.

We are also considering an exceptional voluntary separation opportunity to our staff. This is exceptional because we will need special resources to provide such an offer and it is a direct result of the financial situation of the Agency. I want to stress it is a voluntary measure and one which staff and Unions have been requesting for some time. We are not, and I want to insist on this, dismissing staff, although we may not replace those who choose to voluntarily separate.

To hosts I wish to say:

  • We have no intention of relinquishing our mandate. We are determined to protect our services and we need your help to raise attention and awareness about why our services are critically needed. We also need your help to improve some our service delivery and to join us actively in the effort to raise funds.

To member states and donors I wish to say:

  • The instability in the region is confronting growing numbers of Palestine refugee families to face the choice of either threats to their lives or fleeing the region altogether, choosing the perilous routes across the Mediterranean or beyond. As radicalization and migration flows grow, I ask the question whether the world can afford to have an UNRWA insufficiently funded at this point. 
  • It is my firm belief that we are your partner of choice – predictable, credible, with strong and proven service delivery capacity, in emergencies and chronic crises. If we cannot cover the cash assistance and other needs of Palestine refugees, more people will indeed get onto the boats. Since we are often asked about efficiencies, let me say that it is certainly more efficient to fund UNRWA and actively help us cover our deficit than to have to deal with growing numbers of migrants and refugees reaching your shores.
  • There is a collective responsibility by the international community to help address the plight of Palestine refugees. It must be done politically. Nothing is more important. It should also be done in humanitarian and development terms. 
  • UNRWA is making big steps to address some of its costs drivers. We call on the community of states to step up and help us cover the gap that we have, help us address the needs and move beyond the annual cycles of financial pressures and challenges.

The issue of Palestine refugees is not going away. We can close our eyes on the matter now but should beware of what the landscape will look like when we reopen them.

And to Palestine refugees I wish to say:

  • You may hear people telling you that UNRWA is about to close or be forced to close. You may hear that UNRWA intends to cut services. This is simply not true. Every single staff member of UNRWA, Palestinian or international, male or female, young or experienced, is determined to ensure that you receive the support, services and respect you should. We are facing tough times, but we are engaged in every possible way to get the funds and diplomatic support we need to help.
  • We will also show determination in speaking out about the need to protect and promote your rights and dignity. Humanitarian aid is not a substitute for the denial of dignity or rights. Palestine refugees need more than assistance. You need to enjoy the human rights that international law guarantees to all people and you need a just and lasting solution.

Allow me to conclude with something in short supply but terribly needed for Palestine refugees: hope. In August 2014, during the war in Gaza, I visited a damaged UNRWA school and found this school book in the middle of the rubble. It belonged to Rua Khdeih, a young student aged 11. In it she had written a poem and expressed an understanding beyond her young years when she said, “Hope does not betray.” When we reinaugurated the school in April, Rua read the poem. It sent a powerful message to us all. Hope will never die, but it needs a serious boost.

Let us hear this from her directly [A short video of Rua is shown].

Ladies and gentlemen,

I call on all of us here to rise to the occasion and to have an honest, open and far-reaching debate. I wish to hear your views and suggestions, and in particular, I would call on all to look for solutions together to move UNRWA into a place where it can assume in full the mandate given to it. Palestine refugees are not statistics nor are they victims only. They are, like we all wish to be, actors of their own destinies and we must consider them as such. I want UNRWA at 65 to stand not for misery and poverty alleviation but for hope and dignity.

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.

For more information, please contact:

Sami Mshasha
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