Statement of UNRWA Deputy Commissioner-General Leni Stenseth to the Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question

20 February 2023
Statement of UNRWA Deputy Commissioner-General Leni Stenseth to the Security Council meeting on The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question.

Madame President,

Distinguished Members of the Security Council,

Excellencies, ladies, and gentlemen,

Let me begin by thanking You, Madame President, for your invitation to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East—UNRWA, to brief the Council.

I wish to convey the warm regards from the Commissioner-General, Philippe Lazzarini, and his regret for being unable to meet with you and all members of the Security Council today.


Madame President,

A growing number of Palestine refugees in the region stand on the brink of despair.

Multiple Crisis, conflicts, the never-ending occupation, the socio-economic ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic and rising global food and fuel prices caused by the conflict in Ukraine, have pushed growing numbers of Palestine refugees into poverty,

Competing global priorities and shifting regional dynamics have almost annihilated any remaining attention to the plight of Palestine refugees today.

Meanwhile, the political, socio-economic and security conditions that surround the refugees continue to deteriorate.

In the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, this year has already witnessed a record high number of deaths among Palestinians, including Palestine refugees. Casualties among Israelis are also of grave concern.

We can almost anticipate that coming weeks will likely bring more violence, deaths and more life-changing injuries, including for bystanders and children in the West Bank.

I echo the Special Coordinator’s call to reduce the tension and prevent further loss of life. This cycle of violence must end before it´s too late.

For UNRWA, violence in the West Bank hampers our operations and puts a heavy toll on the Palestine refugees that we serve.

Palestine refugees living in the Northern West Bank, including in and around Jenin and Nablus are particularly vulnerable to surrounding violence and tensions, which have at times forced UNRWA to interrupt its critical services, including its health centers.

Urban spaces within and around densely populated refugee camps should not be venues for clashes with automatic weapons and tear gas.

Children—including refugee children— have been far from immune to this spiraling violence which has created an explosive and dangerous environment of fear, anger, desperation, and hopelessness. 

In Gaza, years of blockade and conflict have isolated the population from the rest of the world, creating a human tragedy it is hard to describe.

Over 80% Palestine refugees in the Strip are poor and nearly all of them rely on UNRWA food assistance.

Nearly half of the children attending our schools in Gaza show signs of trauma, scars which may accompany them for life.

In Gaza, we must always be prepared for an outbreak of conflict, not least because our schools are usually the only safe havens for people who flee their homes. 

We repeatedly call on all parties—in Gaza and in the West Bank — to respect our neutrality and the inviolability of our premises.


Madame President,

In Syria, the recent devastating earthquake is adding to the hardship and despair of a population already grappling with the shattering 12-year-old conflict and its aftermath.

Some 62,000 Palestine refugees living in four camps were affected by the earthquake, with 90 per cent of them in need of emergency assistance already prior to the earthquake.

In Lebanon, the collapse of the economy has hit the most vulnerable the hardest, among them also Palestine refugees, 93 per cent of whom are now living in poverty. 

Children in Palestine refugee camps are exposed to multiple forms of violence, exploitation, abuse and neglect as their caregivers and communities have exhausted their resources and their ability to create a safe and protective environment for children. 

The situation is so desperate that Palestine refugees are increasingly willing to risk their lives at sea in a desperate attempt to achieve a dignified life.

In Jordan, despite overall stability, Palestine refugees struggle with socio-economic conditions that worsen with a declining national economy.  

Gender-based violence and negative coping strategies including early marriage and child labor are on the rise in all our fields of operation.

And across all fields, Palestine refugees feel abandoned by the international community.


Madame President,

UNRWA has continued to deliver on its mandate against this challenging background.

By providing public-like services, including education, health and social services, UNRWA has contributed to the human development of Palestine refugees and has helped maintain a relatively stable environment around them.

As we look at the Middle East, UNRWA remains one of the few standing pillars of stability. 

A pillar of stability for Palestine refugees, for the countries that host them, and for the region.

UNRWA is in fact one of the most successful multilateral and collective efforts of the last 75 years.

As we speak, half a million children are going to our 700 schools across the region.

These schools are a beacon of hope for Palestine refugee boys and girls. And often the only hope they have in what is otherwise a desperate situation.

UNRWA schools produce the future partners for peace that this region needs and that this Council is constantly seeking.


Madame President, Excellencies,

The lack of adequate, sustainable and predictable funding has put UNRWA in an impossible situation.

We have reached the limit of what we can do with the resources we have available today.

Our total income in 2022 was approximately the same as in 2013, while the needs and costs are exponentially greater today.

The status quo is no longer sustainable.

And as the quality of our services declines, so will our ability to contribute to the region’s stability.

Avoiding UNRWA’s implosion is our collective interest—and should be our collective responsibility.

In the absence of a political solution, UNRWA remains irreplaceable, including in terms of its stabilizing role.

UNRWA’s contribution to peace and security is extraordinarily cost effective, helping to secure the present and future of millions of people in a highly fragile region.


Dear Madame President, Excellencies

There can be no peace nor security in the region without the fulfillment of the basic rights of all, including Palestine refugees.

We call on you today not to abandon them.

We call on you today to give them back hope by redoubling efforts to find a political solution.

And we call on you and all Member States to continue supporting UNRWA politically and financially, ensuring that it has the resources it needs to deliver on its mandate.

And as we approach the 75th commemoration of UNRWA’s mandate, let me close by reiterating our Commissioner-General’s invitation to reflect on how the international community should live up to its commitment and responsibility towards Palestine refugees while a just and lasting solution to their plight is found.

Thank you, Madame President.


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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