STATEMENT OF UNRWA COMMISSIONER-GENERAL, TO THE ADVISORY COMMISSION - 2019

18 June 2019
UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl (center) addresses the Advisory Commission Meeting on 17 June at the Dead Sea in Jordan. © 2019 UNRWA Photo by Marwan Baghdadi

Dead Sea, 17 June 2019 


Mr Chair,

Mr Vice-Chair,

Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a renewed and distinct honor to join you here today for this session of the Advisory Commission, chaired by Ambassador Korkut Güngen, whom I wish to thank most sincerely for his active engagement with us over this past year. My appreciation goes to Turkey for the important support in 2018 and the solidarity that you have shown to UNRWA.

I wish to warmly thank the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, by welcoming Ambassador Zaid Al-Louzi representing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Mr. Rafiq Khirfan, the Director-General of the Department of Palestinian Affairs, in his role as Vice-Chair of the Commission. The hospitality shown by Jordan in facilitating our meetings is highly appreciated. The Kingdom’s commitment to Palestine refugees and support to UNRWA - exemplified by the outreach of His Majesty King Abdallah II and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi - were once again indispensable over the past 18 months and deserve very high recognition.

Also present today are the members of the Bureau, and I would like to recognize with appreciation: the Chair of the Subcommittee, Ms. Anna-Kaisa Heikkinen, Ambassador and Head of Mission for Finland in Ramallah, and the Vice-Chairs Mr. Jason Tulk, Head of Cooperation, Canada Representative Office in Ramallah and Mr. Rafiq Khirfan, the Director-General of the Department of Palestinian Affairs.

We are very pleased to welcome a new member of the Advisory Commission in Qatar. I wish to acknowledge Mr. Ali Abdullah Al Dabbagh, Deputy Director-General of Planning at the Qatar Fund for Development for your first participation as a full member and look forward to further strengthening our cooperation.

And we are honored and pleased by the presence of four guests at this meeting: China, India, Afghanistan, and Mexico. From the Chinese Embassy in Amman are present: Li Linchen, Second Secretary, Wang Yali, Third Secretary, and Zheng Tian Huiyang, attaché. I welcome Sunil Kumar the Indian Representative in Ramallah, and Mariana Herrera-Salcedo Serrano, Third Secretary at the Mexican Embassy in Amman. I welcome Zabiuallah Zabin, Second Secretary from the Embassy of Afghanistan in Amman. Your presence is very important to us and our developing partnerships highly valued and means a great deal to UNRWA and to Palestine refugees. I would like to extend particular appreciation to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan for the extraordinary solidarity shown earlier this year when donating US$1 million to UNRWA, noting the difficult circumstances your country has faced in recent years.

Allow me also, as per usual practice to introduce senior staff appointed in UNRWA since the last Advisory Commission meeting in November 2018:

Michael-Ebye Amanya: Director of the Syria Field Office

Gwyn Lewis: Director of the West Bank Field Office

Mohammad Adar: Director of the Jordan Field Office

Kaan Cetinturk: Director of the Information Management Department  

Munir Manneh: Director of the Infrastructure and Camp Improvement Department

Byung-Kun Min: Director of the Department of Internal Oversight Services

Sam Rose: Director of Planning

Abdirahman Aynte: moved from Director of Planning to Director of Strategic Partnerships

Tamara Al Rifai: appointed as the Agency’s Spokesperson  

Jane Giacaman: appointed as the Director of the Microfinance Department

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I wish to begin this session of the Advisory Commission with a heartfelt expression of gratitude to the member states of the United Nations and in particular the members of this Commission - both countries hosting Palestine refugees and donors - for their extraordinary trust in and support to UNRWA since its operations began in 1950.

There is no doubt that together we have contributed to one of the most remarkable human development processes and significantly advanced several key sustainable development goals for Palestine refugees, notably in education, health and beyond, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight.

Never was your support more remarkable than in 2018, when our Agency was confronted with the most severe institutional and funding crisis ever. When we met seven months ago here at the Dead Sea, I informed you that we were well underway to overcoming that truly existential crisis.

In the end, forty-two different countries and institutions - from all corners of the world - increased their contributions to UNRWA last year and we took a number of difficult internal measures and reduced expenditures by US$ 92 million. Through these combined efforts, we last year successfully overcame an unprecedented deficit of US$ 446 million. I really wish to extend sincere recognition also to the many private donors and foundations that contributed to that effort as well.

We are particularly indebted to the leadership of Secretary-General António Guterres and the wider United Nations family, who resolutely stood with UNRWA every step of the way during these most challenging times.

As I look into the room, there are so many words of appreciation that come to mind that I would like to convey to you individually, for host countries and our donors. I hope to have an opportunity to highlight them in the course of our meeting. Every pledge made to UNRWA in 2018 was honored before the end of the year by all of you, another truly impressive achievement.

Your actions and support were vital to keeping open the 708 schools that UNRWA runs for over half a million female and male students in the West Bank - including East Jerusalem - Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

The generous support of donors also preserved the primary-health care services for 8.5 million patient visits through our network of 144 clinics and - despite severe pressures - our emergency services to 1.5 Million refugees, mainly in Gaza, the West Bank and Syria.

Your support also kept the relief and social services, infrastructure and camp improvement, protection, microfinance and emergency services running to the best extent possible.

At a time when Palestine Refugees face the near complete absence of a political horizon, I am strongly convinced that preserving UNRWA services is a crucial contribution in terms of human dignity and regional stability.

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Before I return to UNRWA-specific challenges in 2019, I would like to share some observations about the situation of Palestine refugees. I will limit myself to a few key points as we will be hearing later from our field directors.

It remains very urgent to draw the attention of the Advisory Commission to the increasingly desperate situation faced by the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip - of which at least 1.3 million are Palestine refugees.

My latest visit a few weeks ago – together with Director Matthias Schmale - once again exposed me to the extreme hardship created by successive armed confrontations, blockade and violence.

I think here in particular of the deep trauma created by the many casualties and injured from repeated wars and also from what became known as the “Great Marches of Return”.

Thousands of young people that have been wounded and hundreds killed since March 2018, including 14 boys and girls aged 11 to 16 who were students in UNRWA schools.

Every family in Gaza has been impacted and people speak of a level of despair that surpasses anything previously known to them, in particular in terms of what our health teams call an “epidemic deterioration of mental-health conditions” in the Gaza Strip.

After hearing many concrete examples during my visit, it seems particularly important that UNRWA and other relevant actors are enabled to strengthen critically needed mental health capacities.

This explains why we decided to reinstate 500 staff, who had been placed on part-time contracts in 2018, to full-time employment. Many of them are psycho-social counselors.

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UNRWA faces important needs in the West Bank as well, including in East Jerusalem. Palestine refugees in the West Bank are confronted with multiple consequences of the ongoing occupation.

During a series of visits – with Director Gwyn Lewis - recently carried out to Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Shu’fat and Hebron, I was reminded of the fact that 52 years after the occupation began, we are increasingly confronted with a difficulty to describe what the occupation means, how deeply it defines the daily experiences of millions of people.

And yet, there is nothing abstract about occupation. It means home demolitions and evictions, with numbers significantly on the rise since early 2019, as well as movement restrictions and settler violence.

There are also frequent military incursions where live ammunition is fired, at times resulting in fatalities, but often in injuries and property damage in densely populated areas like Palestine refugee camps, where entire communities can be impacted by the live fire and tear gas.

Occupation also means young girls and boys - UNRWA students - harassed at check points and confronted with the daily humiliations and dangers on the way to school. It is a profoundly dehumanizing environment and it has gone on for far too long.

I must in particular draw your attention to the growing pressures UNRWA itself has faced in East Jerusalem, with threats to interfere with our operations. We have seen this in Shu’fat with interference and uncoordinated involvement with garbage collection for example. We have seen it with demolition orders issued against community centers, a first in relation to installations being built by camp service committees inside Shu’fat.

We believe this has to be seen against the backdrop of a decision by Israel to assert its full control over East Jerusalem, in line with its proclaimed annexation of East Jerusalem.

The current developments in the West Bank including East Jerusalem will not only further unsettle Palestine refugees, but also their hope and aspirations with regard to a two-State solution and their rights under international law.

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There are important updates as well on the situations of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. In the interest of time, I will refer you to the presentations by our respective field directors in the panel later today.

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Turning to the specific situation of UNRWA, I wish to provide you with a few additional updates.

First, in financial terms, we launched global appeals for US$1.2 billion for all UNRWA operations in 2019. This is the exact amount we mobilized in 2018. In other words, if every donor could maintain its level of contribution from last year we would cover the financial needs. This has been my message to you and your national and institutional leaderships since the beginning of 2019.

In the financial update that will be provided by Director of Finance Shadi El-Abed, you will hear the confirmation that we have covered the funding requirements from January until end May. We will however begin to face deficit figures and cash shortfalls from this month.

I humbly call on the members of the Advisory Commission to actively consider additional funding announcements that can be made at the upcoming pledging conference in New York on 25 June. For its part, UNRWA will continue to manage its operations with strong financial discipline and a determination to achieve further efficiencies.

These pledges are crucial, in particular to:

  • Prevent any interruption of the food pipeline in Gaza for 1 million people, which would cause major instability in the Strip. Poverty levels continue to rise among Palestine refugees continue who rely on UNRWA to in particular meet essential food needs. We need US$ 80 milion for this in 2019 and have only one quarter covered by an actual direct contribution. Two quarters have been covered through a CERF loan and an internal advance from our program budget.
  • Ensure our 708 schools open on time in August/September for 532,000 girls and boys. We are currently rehabilitating a large number of schools - with generous support from Saudi Arabia - but we need the funding to ensure that the education itself can be provided.

Nothing sustains hope and opportunities more effectively than the education provided in our classrooms. I am deeply impressed by the courage shown by our students in overcoming the adversity they face and pursuing their studies. We need to match that courage with our ability to mobilize the necessary financial support.

This of course applies to all of our fields and all of our 532,000 students. In Gaza alone, 280,000 girls and boys study in our schools. In light of all the discussions on “leaving no one behind”, on safeguarding refugee education and preserving regional stability, we need to work together to keep UNRWA schools open and safe.

  • To work together to improve the currently low levels of coverage of our emergency appeals for oPt (22 per cent) and Syria (17 cent).

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Mr Chair, Mr Vice Chair,

Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Wars, armed conflicts and violence, persist in the absence of effective political action to resolve them. It is political inaction - not the action of humanitarian organizations - that perpetuates conflicts. Nothing today would be more important than a renewed genuine and inclusive effort to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. We are far from it.

I say this not because UNRWA was mandated to deal with the politics of the region. We were not. But rather because every single day, we deal with increasingly severe human consequences of this enduring conflict.

We do not believe that the future of Palestine refugees should be framed by another ten, twenty, thirty or more years of UNRWA. We do not believe either that wishing away over five million men, women and children is a recipe for peace, stability and coexistence in the region.

Efforts to delegitimize Palestine refugees are wrong and misguided. Attempts to challenge the definitions of refugees or the notion of descendants serve only further polarization. They are equally wrong and misguided.

I repeat something I underlined in November and I do so because a deliberate campaign of misrepresentation is underway on this topic: it continues to be asserted in international fora, in parliaments, in meetings and media, that Palestine refugees are somehow a unique case, whereby the children and grand-children of original refugees are registered by UNRWA, in contrast - it is said - to UNHCR. We are described as “inflating” the number of refugees.

This is one of the greatest misrepresentations I have come across in the 28 years of my humanitarian work. There is sadly nothing unique in the situation of Palestine refugees, giving rise to successive generations remaining displaced.

The fact is, in conformity with the principle of family unity, children born to refugees, and their descendants, are recognized as refugees by UNRWA and UNHCR under their respective mandates. Refugees from places like Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo, Sudan, etc. have been displaced for decades and their descendants are recognized as refugees by UNHCR and assisted as such, until lasting solutions are found.

As I mentioned earlier, it is therefore the failure to resolve conflicts that perpetuates refugee situations, not the actions of aid agencies. The suggestion that UNRWA is somehow responsible for 7 decades of Palestine refugee-hood represents a clear attempt to distract attention from where the real responsibilities lie.

Palestine refugees need and deserve a just and lasting political solution. Until then, we are determined to live up to the mandate that the UN General Assembly bestowed upon us.

In this regard, my gratitude is immense to members of the Advisory Commission who placed so much trust in UNRWA and have supported us so generously over the decades and so particularly in 2018.

I once again humbly urge all of you to repeat your generous support and preserve the successful dynamic that we created in 2018. We are doing this not for the sake of UNRWA itself, but for Palestine refugees. It is very important for the preservation of their hope, rights and dignity. It is also essential for the safeguarding of regional stability and defense of robust multilateralism.

Allow me to conclude by quoting from a letter recently addressed by the 22 members of the UNRWA central student parliament to the Executive Office to the Secretary General. In it they wrote:

“We, Palestine refugees, continue to suffer as have our parents and grandparents for more than 70 years. But despite the many challenges we face every day as refugee students, we do not see ourselves as victims, but as change makers and young innovators who can contribute to global solutions with a distinctive voice [...]. We did not choose to be refugees. We want the world to respect us for our skills, dreams and aspirations, and we want to contribute to building solutions for a better world.“

 

I 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.

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