UNRWA chief calls on East Asian countries to strengthen support

14 February 2013

14 February
Tokyo, Japan

UNRWA Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi today addressed the Conference on Cooperation among East Asian Countries for Palestinian Development (CEAPAD), hosted in Tokyo by the Government of Japan to discuss financial assistance for the occupied Palestinian territory. The full text of his speech follows.

"I would like to join other speakers in thanking the Government of Japan and the State of Palestine for organising this important conference. Japan has long been a partner to the Palestinians and to UNRWA, and has played a thoughtful role in the region, supporting sustainable development and economic growth. We must now commend Japan for promoting mutual understanding and exchange between the East and the Middle East.  

I would also like to thank the organisers for inviting UNRWA, the United Nations organisation most closely associated with Palestinians. UNRWA, among United Nations organisations, has a singular brief: to provide for Palestine refugees - approximately five million are currently registered with our Agency - until there is a political solution to their plight; and it has a unique modus operandi, working directly with refugees and their communities throughout the region. With a staff of 30,000, we are also the second largest employer in Palestine after the Palestinian government, and a major employer in all countries in which we operate. 

It is the Palestinian Liberation Organisation which represents all Palestinians. UNRWA’s mandate is one of assistance and support for refugees. We cooperate of course with Palestinian state institutions, but our role - in their respect - is separate and complementary, and clearly distinct from that of governments in countries hosting refugees. UNRWA is a key component of a provisional system set up after Palestine refugees fled their homes in 1948, whereby the international community pledged to support them through a dedicated UN organisation until a just and durable solution to their plight is found. With peace remaining elusive, that pledge remains necessary today. Palestine refugees are still hosted by several Arab countries and largely depend on UNRWA for their education, health, basic social services and - in situations of conflict - humanitarian assistance.    

The core of UNRWA’s mandate is to enhance and sustain the human development of refugees. We do so, crucially, thanks to a regional network of schools and clinics. Through these programmes, and other, dedicated interventions, including a successful micro-finance institution, we also aim at reducing poverty. To appreciate the uniqueness of UNRWA’s challenge, you must know for example that 500,000 children go to our 700 schools every day. This is a big responsibility, and no small feat for an international organisation depending on voluntary funding.
You will have heard critics say that this framework helps perpetuate the question of Palestine refugees. The truth is different: while that question remains unresolved in the political sphere, the international community, through UNRWA, can provide opportunities to Palestine refugees even as their exile  continues. They remain refugees, and as such maintain rights recognised by international law, but their lives are improved through the services that we offer.  Sadly, however, efforts to promote their human development have been hampered through the decades by repeated conflicts.

As we speak, over 520,000 Palestinians in Syria are confronted with the full horror of war and share the terrible plight of all civilians.  We estimate that as many as half of the Palestinian refugee population may be displaced from their homes. Some try to flee the country to neighbouring states, but for Palestinians - long considered in the region a politically sensitive group - flight options are limited, so that many are trapped inside war-torn Syria.   Lebanon has generously taken in 20,000 Palestine refugees from Syria - in addition to 274,000 Syrians - but its political complexity makes for shaky ground, and the country already hosts hundreds of thousands of Palestinians maintaining a difficult existence in squalid camps.    

Syria’s brutal war should not make us forget, as Prime Minister Fayyad reminded us, that for Palestine refugees, as for other Palestinians, the most powerful obstacle to development continues to be the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. And while the peace process stagnates, for ordinary Palestinians, of whom almost two million are refugees in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, there is no status quo. Palestinians are being slowly but surely alienated from their land and assets by the tightening grip of occupation policies. I am speaking about the blockade of Gaza - where two thirds of the population are refugees and where UNRWA’s role is especially important -  the cantonisation of the West Bank, the incessant and illegal expansion of settlements , the usurpation of water resources, the alienation of Palestinians from East Jerusalem, and the slow degradation of the economic and social fabric of Palestinian life. In spite of this, and in parallel to the work done by the State of Palestine to consolidate institutional structures and a viable economy, UNRWA strives to afford a measure of human development to the refugee population amidst the carefully structured and ever expanding occupation.    

This brings me to an important point. To support the government of Palestine, its institutions and work, is of course the absolute priority. However, I would like to also appeal to you today not to neglect the needs of five million Palestine refugees.

UNRWA is completely reliant on regular donor funding. The exercise of constant fundraising, I can assure you, keeps us lean and efficient.  Of late, however, we are becoming a little too lean. In the face of growing needs, our funding deficit is now chronic, especially in respect of our core programme, which allows us to run schools, clinics and activities in support of the most vulnerable. We carry a USD68 million deficit on our USD660 million core programme for 2013, and some of our special and emergency activities are also threatened by financial shortfalls: in Lebanon, for example, but also in the occupied Palestinian territory, where donor responses to the United Nations’ consolidated appeal process, of which we are a substantial part, have been declining in recent years.

More than 90 per cent of UNRWA’s core resources are contributed by the United States, the European Union and its member states, Japan and Australia. Arab donors, though they are substantial supporters of special projects, especially in Gaza (including through the Islamic Development Bank) contributed last year just over 4 per cent of UNRWA’s core resources - an improvement over previous years, but still a low percentage, in spite of strong encouragement by the League of Arab States, and personally by its Secretary-General. You will appreciate therefore that UNRWA depends on a very narrow donor base, and in many of its traditional donor countries financial constraints have meant that aid resources - especially in the protracted Palestine refugee situation - have become more difficult to mobilise. UNRWA has therefore turned to countries with emerging economies for additional support: our discussions with Brazil, Turkey and Russia have been promising, with some significant contributions made in the last two years. But more needs to be done if UNRWA is to remain financially viable.

My appeal to countries in East Asia is to follow Malaysia’s recent example, and match their traditional political backing for UNRWA in the General Assembly and other international fora with increased financial support to UNRWA’s core work and projects.  East Asian countries also have a wealth of expertise and experience that can be very usefully brought to application in this context. There are many ways to cooperate to develop the full potential of young refugees, from technical training to scholarships, from health care to promotion of entrepreneurship. And there is also unexplored potential in private sector collaboration, particularly in the technology sector.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

UNRWA is not a political organisation. However,  it is ultimately a political framework that supports development, and it is the international community‘s global responsibility to ensure that Palestinian rights are preserved and supported, not eroded and ignored. This, among other things, must bring a just and viable solution to the refugee issue and along with it the end of UNRWA‘s mission. I would like to emphasise strongly that Palestine refugees, whose marginalised status is a liability to the region and the world, must also be an integral part of the peace process. Their views must be heard and heeded, because the solution of the refugee issue is key to the viability of any peace agreement. 

In this vein, I hope that Palestine refugees can remain on the agenda of the follow-up mechanism which this conference will hopefully decide on.

The potential of Palestinian people is immeasurable, as I have learned to appreciate during my several years working with UNRWA. Given the freedom and the opportunity, their creativity and ambition are boundless, and equal only to their steadfastness in adversity. Let me mention for instance Khaled, a refugee born in Lebanon, now doing research with NASA, or the three young refugee girls from Nablus in the West Bank who won a global prize for developing an electronic cane for the blind. These examples very much remind me of the excellence, innovation and determination that we know of the people of East Asia.   

They also show that the rewards of peace are potentially huge. Investing in Palestine and Palestinians, and taking responsibility for the pursuit of a political solution, are sides of the same coin. Both are urgent. Both must be shared by all. 

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.