Statement by Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, to the Fourth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly

07 November 2013
UNRWA Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi

New York
6 November 2013

Mr Chairman,

I welcome the opportunity to address again this distinguished Committee. Next month will mark the 64th anniversary of the establishment of UNRWA by UN General Assembly Resolution 302. Originally numbering 750,000, the Palestine refugee population has now grown to over five million. The Palestinian refugee question remains at the heart of the quest for peace in the Middle East. Like refugees from other protracted conflict situations - think of Afghanistan and Somalia, for example - Palestine refugees continue to be living proof of a conflict unresolved across generations: the one between Israelis and Palestinians - the one that perhaps has become, more than any other, the contemporary symbol of how difficult peace making can be, and how costly are its failures. 

Furthermore, Palestine refugees, scattered throughout a volatile region, over the decades have found themselves involved in other conflicts - conflicts to which they were strangers, but in which they became entangled. Today, almost half of the Palestine refugees remain subjected to Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territory; but many are also enduring the maelstrom of violence in Syria, and have become part of one of the largest human displacement disasters of modern times.  

The stark reality is that the vulnerability and protection needs of Palestine refugees have increased dramatically in recent years in all of UNRWA’s five fields of operation, further testing the already stretched resilience and coping strategies of their communities and families.   

In these circumstances, and in keeping with the commitment of the international community to the well-being of Palestine refugees, enshrined in UN resolutions, it is imperative that they should benefit from a measure of human security, stability and protection. This requires that UNRWA be adequately supported and funded. It is not surprising that refugees feel vulnerable; their fears of abandonment are profoundly exacerbated by UNRWA ‘s chronic funding shortfalls. We have succeeded in maintaining core services, especially in education and health. However, the shortage of special humanitarian funds in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon - largely due to the drain on those funds represented by the crisis in Syria - have compelled us to reduce part of the humanitarian support provided to some groups in these areas.  This has caused protests and demonstrations by refugee communities, reminding us of their vulnerability, of our obligations to assist, and of the stability that UNRWA engenders in the region, and - vice-versa - the increased volatility that a weaker UNRWA may contribute to.

Are there any signs of hope? 

There is a new, if fragile, opportunity for progress to be made in the long dormant Middle East peace process. We all know the extraordinary difficulty of the challenges that lie before the parties.  Without a positive outcome, however, to all the final status issues, the full reflection of Palestinian statehood on the ground will remain in abeyance, and the refugee situation in limbo. It is a moment, therefore, of promise; but also of great uncertainty. This fuels the frustration of Palestine refugees, not least amongst youth, who represent almost one third of the refugee population and whose job opportunities and life chances are severely constrained.  

I mention this context - with which you are familiar - as further proof of the importance of supporting UNRWA, especially at this critical juncture. Make no mistakes: weakening UNRWA now - and the risk is very real - will be interpreted in the region, more than ever, as an attempt to short-circuit peace negotiations through a de facto abdication of responsibilities towards refugees.

Mr Chairman, 

Although Syria is everybody’s most acute preoccupation, I will not hide from you my profound concern about the situation in Gaza.  The economy there is moribund, a situation now exacerbated by the recent closure of tunnels, through which many basic commodities were entering. Recent UN data show that food-insecure households increased from 44% to 57% last year. This trend continues. The number of Palestine refugees dependent on externally provided humanitarian assistance has increased from 10% in 2000 to 70% in 2013; five out of six young people between the ages of 16 and 28 are unemployed. UNRWA alone is providing food to more than 800,000 people, half the population. Meanwhile, the illegal blockade on Gaza, including especially the blanket prevention of exports, has crippled its economy. 

In the face of these growing challenges, UNRWA finds itself unable to fully fund all its work in Gaza. Emergency resources for food and job creation have been curtailed. Cuts in cash payments to the poorest refugees and in the school feeding programme – the largest single daily source of nutrition for refugee children - are consequences of this funding shortfall. With heightened food insecurity and a 2014 funding outlook more challenging than in 2013, I fear that humanitarian operations in Gaza will not be sustained at adequate levels. 

In the medium term, a recent UN report predicts that by 2020 infrastructure, energy, water and other assets will be inadequate to sustain society, unless decisive changes – including a lifting of the blockade – are made by stakeholders, with the support of the international community. But the short term is also worrying. The combination of deteriorating material conditions and growing political and security tensions - Israeli military incursions, rockets launched towards southern Israel - is the recipe for yet another crisis. Violence has flared up in the last few days at levels not seen since last November’s military escalation, a repeat of which - for the third time in less than five years - I strongly appeal to the international community to strive to prevent. 

The security and the economic situation in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is also deteriorating, and Palestinians, among whom are almost 750,000 refugees, continue to be alienated from their rights and land by stifling restrictions imposed by the Government of Israel and by the inexorable growth of settlements, which are illegal under international law.   The World Bank and International Monetary Fund have emphasized that the West Bank economy is unsustainable under these conditions in their recent reports to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee. 

Forced displacement through settlement expansion, home demolitions and restrictions on Palestinian communities remain a major concern, including in East Jerusalem, where there is a policy to deprive Palestinians of residence, assets and livelihoods. Increased incidents of settler violence are also a cause of great concern. In addition there are threats of forcible transfer facing the Bedouin community in particular in Area C and E1, where 2,300 Bedouin - 80% of whom are refugees - are at risk.

As we have frequently raised in our regular exchanges with the Israeli authorities, which I welcome, I am also concerned about the significant increase in the use of live ammunition during Israeli military operations in and around Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, which have led to nine fatalities, including one UNRWA staff member, and over 40 injured, including two staff members. 

Mr Chairman,

You and this Committee are familiar with the catastrophic situation in Syria. From UNRWA’s perspective, it is important to underline that the Syria crisis continues to have a Palestinian refugee component which must not be forgotten - amidst the multiplicity of challenges to be addressed - because it is a specific international responsibility, and because it has specific and sensitive human and political aspects.  While UNRWA strives to maintain its regular education and health services, nearly all of the approximately 550,000 Palestine refugees registered in Syria also need emergency assistance, including those who have sought safety in Lebanon and other countries. This number is set to rise as thousands of refugees who were previously self-sufficient continue to approach UNRWA to seek support.  Approximately half of all Palestine refugees are displaced in Syria, with thousands sheltering - together with Syrian citizens - in 18 of UNRWA’s schools and other facilities. Six out of 12 Palestine refugee camps have become battlegrounds between armed opposition groups and government forces, trapping Palestinians inside embattled areas.

A prime example of this atrocious situation is in the capital’s suburb of Yarmouk, formerly home to over 160,000 Palestine refugees, which now contains less than 20,000 of them; UNRWA has had no regular access to them for over three months nor to those who remain trapped in Sbeineh camp - formerly home to 6,000 refugees. I must warn you that as in other parts of Syria, the lack of humanitarian access to some of the Palestinian refugee camps is having deadly consequences. We hear horrifying reports from those surviving, especially in Yarmouk. Given accumulating evidence of malnutrition and infectious diseases (including leishmaniasis and polio) in other inaccessible areas of Syria, as well as informal reports of starvation particularly affecting infants, children and the elderly, UNRWA is gravely concerned about the Palestinian camps and communities that for many months have remained out of reach.

I call upon this Committee to join UNRWA to condemn in the strongest terms the profound suffering being endured by civilians trapped in these situations and to appeal to the Syrian authorities and all other parties to allow Palestinian civilians – wherever they live in Syria – the full spectrum of protection to which they are entitled. 

Those responsible for transforming Palestinian camps and areas into war zones must cease their actions. The authorities and all parties must do more to make Palestinians feel safe in their homes in Yarmouk and across Syria. If Palestinians choose to leave their homes, the choice must be free, informed and they must be protected and spared the risks of kidnapping, detention and other violations.

It is positive that progress is being made on some important issues related to the conflict, such as the destruction of chemical weapons. I must unfortunately remind you that, meanwhile, increased fighting and denial of access for relief organizations have worsened the plight of civilians. Furthermore, humanitarian workers are increasingly exposed to the dangers of operating in the middle of a messy, deadly war. 

UNRWA has lost eight of its staff, and 19 are missing, with several of this number presumed being detained by different parties.  We estimate that around 46,000 Palestine refugee homes have been damaged or destroyed. Fifty-nine of our 180 facilities have sustained various degrees of damage as a result of the conflict.  We are troubled by reports of continuing lack of respect for the inviolability of UNRWA premises by armed elements.

Yet, we continue to work in Syria, adapting constantly to the changing situation. UNRWA’s cash payments to destitute Palestine refugees, food assistance, medicines and non-food items have doubled every six months since the beginning of the conflict. 

Meanwhile, health and education services sustain families, keep support systems functioning, and hold communities together. Around 43,000 Palestine refugee children are still able to attend UNRWA schools in Syria. However, more than 35% of our students cannot attend classes.  There are also barriers to accessing UNRWA medical centres. UNRWA’s innovative approaches, such as mobile health points and satellite TV education, have helped mitigate this contraction of humanitarian space, whilst our microfinance programme supports creative new businesses which have sprung up amidst the conflict. Cash distribution, both in Syria, and to newly arrived refugees in Lebanon, and the distribution of simple but essential items such as hygiene kits, blankets and warm clothes, alleviate the immediate vulnerability of those displaced. 

This is why your support is essential. I would like to thank those Member States who have stepped up and financed UNRWA’s activities in the UN consolidated appeals for Syria and neighbouring states - 65% of our emergency requirements for 2013, estimated at $290 million, have now been funded. I must alert you, however, that needs in 2014 will not diminish. In fact, unfortunately, I anticipate a 25% increase in our funding requirements.

Many Palestinians have left Syria to seek refuge elsewhere. We estimate that around 49,000 are now in Lebanon, 9,600 in Jordan, 6,000 in Egypt, 1,000 in Gaza, with others leaving for countries outside the region. Tragically, and without precedent, Palestine refugees are now amongst those seeking sanctuary in Europe. There were Palestinians from Syria on boats which sank off the coasts of Egypt and Malta last month. The enormous risks which some of them have been forced to take is a heartbreaking reminder of their growing vulnerability, and of their feeling of being increasingly unwelcome in the region. 

In Lebanon, the influx of Palestinians from Syria - amidst a huge flow of Syrian refugees - has compounded the already overcrowded Palestinian camps, challenging existing inhabitants, the Lebanese authorities and UNRWA to find ways to assist them. Particular efforts have been made to provide places for Palestinian children from Syria in our schools in Lebanon. We have recruited 200 additional teachers and although 6,700 of them are now at school, many are not, and this is a major concern. 

The impact of the Syria crisis and of the refugee influx in Lebanon have also meant that no progress has been made in the past year towards implementing legislation that would enhance opportunities for Palestinians to work. As a consequence, poverty continues to be endemic in the Palestine refugee community and can only worsen with the added burden of those entering from Syria. 

Another priority for UNRWA in Lebanon is to complete the reconstruction of Nahr El Bared Camp, which was totally destroyed in 2007, leaving 27,000 Palestine refugees homeless. Funding remains slow and inadequate, so by the end of this year 17,000 refugees will still be displaced from their original dwellings. I would like to use this opportunity to make a strong appeal to donors - and in particular to governments in the Arab region - to provide funding for the reconstruction of the camp, and (while this is implemented) for the relief of those that are still displaced. 

Jordan is the most stable field of operation of UNRWA, hosting the largest number of Palestine refugees, and now - as an additional and urgent burden - hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Our long-standing cooperation with the Government of Jordan continues to be close and constructive and I wish to thank in particular the Foreign Minister for having acted as an important advocate in support of UNRWA on many crucial occasions. We note that Jordanian policy stipulates that passage from Syria to Jordan is not a “flight option” for most Palestine refugees leaving Syria. Jordan has received a large Syrian refugee population, in addition to having hosted millions of Palestine refugees since 1948. Its hospitality, and its burden, must be appreciated. Nevertheless, in line with the Security Council Presidential statement of 2 October 2013, we continue to urge Jordan to consider granting temporary access to Palestinians fleeing Syria for urgent humanitarian reasons. UNRWA, on its side, remains committed to assist those fleeing, in coordination with the government. 

Mr Chairman,

From these updates a common thread can be drawn. The vulnerability of Palestine refugees is increasing, and with it their fears of marginalization and abandonment, the more so as humanitarian resources are diverted elsewhere. Reflecting this, UNRWA is under severe financial pressure, unable to fund adequately its basic programmes of health, education and poverty mitigation through its General Fund. Today UNRWA, this year, has a $48 million cash deficit on its General Fund which, if not covered, will prevent UNRWA from paying the salaries of teachers, medical personnel, social workers and other staff in December, bringing its operations to a standstill.    
What can be done?

We have, of course, exercised all possible effort to contain expenditure through rigorously applied austerity measures. This has allowed costs to decrease substantially in the course of this year. 

On the other hand, one avenue pursued vigorously during my term as Commissioner-General has been to expand UNRWA’s donor base beyond our traditional donors – the United States, the European Union and its Member States, Norway, Japan, Switzerland and Australia – who have collectively and over many years provided over 90% of UNRWA’s funding for its basic programmes. Some progress has been made; other countries, and especially Brazil and Turkey, have substantially increased their contributions to the Agency, including through the provision of food aid. To further bolster these efforts UNRWA organised a ministerial level meeting in New York on 26 September, jointly chaired by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States Nabil Elaraby, to emphasize the need for further support to UNRWA’s core services, notably from members of the Arab League, who are already - especially Saudi Arabia - among the largest donors to UNRWA’s special projects. The meeting concluded with a renewed engagement by Arab League members to achieve and sustain the longstanding 7.8% target for their collective contributions to UNRWA’s basic programmes. Realisation of this target is now essential - I repeat essential - in solving UNRWA’s immediate funding problems, and I also appeal to States in other regions, especially Asia and Latin America, to consider increasing their support.

Meanwhile, we have pursued vigorously our reform agenda. This has been a major priority during my tenure and we have taken far-reaching measures. Around half of UNRWA’s health centres have adopted e-health tools, and 21 are piloting the Family Health Team approach which is proving more efficient in offering primary health care to patients and creating better conditions for reducing the incidence of non-communicable diseases. Education reform is also advancing, focusing on inclusive education, teacher development, human rights and conflict resolution teaching, and on modernizing vocational training. The aim is to put UNRWA’s programme back to where it was in the past, at the cutting edge of education work in our region. 

UNRWA is also reviewing its approach to dealing with poverty, looking at creating a new holistic concept which, on the one hand, will focus on the abject poor, and within this group, vulnerable refugees and youth; and on the other, will aim at interrupting the intergenerational transmission of poverty. This new approach, aimed at maximizing the impact of UNRWA’s existing poverty mitigation work, at ensuring that education and health do contribute to mitigating poverty, and at improving current tools such as food aid and cash transfers, will be at the heart of UNRWA’s next Medium Term Strategy for 2016-21 - which we are currently developing in close coordination with our key stakeholders in the Advisory Commission. Due account of course will be taken of the views of refugees and host authorities; the objective is to make the Agency more effective and efficient in combating life cycle poverty, not to cut back programmes. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is likely that this will be my last appearance before this Committee as Commissioner-General of UNRWA.  
It has been a great honour and privilege, as well as an enriching professional and personal experience, to serve UNRWA, first as Deputy Commissioner-General and for the last four years as head of this very special United Nations organization.  
I would like to pay special homage to those who have lost their lives during service with UNRWA. Tribute must also be paid to all of UNRWA’s 30,000 loyal and hardworking staff working today - as UNRWA does, practically, effectively and rather uniquely in the United Nations system – in and with the refugee communities: our teachers, medical and social workers who are almost all Palestine refugees themselves. The commitment and dedication of our staff to serve their fellow refugees remain a source of great strength to the small but effective group of international staff supporting them, to my deputy and me, and to the United Nations at large.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank the General Assembly, and especially the Fourth Committee, including the host countries and all donors, for the support you have given UNRWA during my tenure. Your backing has ensured that, despite the many challenges, UNRWA has managed to execute the mandate received from you: to provide essential education, health, relief and social services, microfinance and protection to Palestine refugees. We would have liked to do better, and to meet more comprehensively the needs of the refugees, but this has proven difficult in these lean economic times. Let me however make one last appeal in this forum: UNRWA’s services must - I repeat: must - be maintained until a just and durable solution is found to the plight of Palestine refugees in accordance with international law and UN resolutions and in consultation with the refugees themselves, through the most appropriate ways and means.

I believe that I will hand over to my successor an organization in positive transformation, in which substantive management and programme reforms have taken solid hold. Remember that UNRWA will have to continue to do this under extreme circumstances, with all its fields of operation currently confronted, in varying degrees, by crisis. Navigating a way through this difficult period, staying the course in fulfilling our mandate while taking into account the diverse agendas of all of you - our stakeholders - will be challenging but vital for five million Palestine refugees. 
My final and most important thought is that throughout my time at UNRWA I have never ceased to be humbled by the spirit, resilience and determination of the Palestinian people. These qualities need to find expression in the State of Palestine, living in peace and security with its neighbours. While this is hopefully forged through renewed negotiations, do not forget that those qualities also need to be realized through a just and lasting solution to the question of refugees within the context of a negotiated peace. 

I am proud that my organization has been able, with your support, to contribute for more than 60 years to keeping alive the promise of a better future for Palestinians, in spite of everything. The bright flashes of creativity and innovation which we see through our work in difficult places like Gaza, amidst the violence in Syria, in the squalid camps of Lebanon, tell us every day that in the potential of young Palestinian refugees lie key resources for creating a productive and stable future for the region. Let us give them a chance.  

Thank you, Mr Chairman.


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.

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