UNRWA Commissioner-General's statement to the Special Political and Decolonization Committee of the General Assembly

02 November 2011

New York

Madam Chair, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates,

I have the honour today to present to the General Assembly my report on UNRWA’s operations for 2010. At the same time, I will take the opportunity to highlight the main challenges in 2011 and beyond.

It has been a year of considerable change in the region. As the people of the Middle East call for reforms and respect for their human rights, the Palestine refugees watch, frustrated by the lack of movement in a peace process that should have put an end to their sixty-three year old plight. Many of them fear they will maintain the unfortunate distinction of being the most protracted refugee situation in the world, and remain a people in open-ended exile.

Needless to say, the political context remains very challenging. Peace negotiations are regrettably stagnant. The Palestinian bid for UN Membership has added another dimension. From the perspective of UNRWA, as we have repeatedly stated, it is essential that the rights and entitlements of Palestine refugees continue to be protected. The international community must ensure that the refugees’ plight is addressed and resolved with urgency and in accordance with international law including relevant UN resolutions.

Over the course of its sixty-two year history, UNRWA has proven, time and again, to be an important contributor to stability in a region that has seen much conflict and where peace has been elusive. Strong support for its mandate and financial requirements by the General Assembly, the host countries and the donors must continue to send a clear message that the United Nations and the international community, in accordance with the principles of the UN Charter, remain committed to the well-being, human development and protection of the refugees, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight.

Madam Chair,

I would like to speak briefly of the considerable challenges that UNRWA faces at this time.

I reported to this Committee in November of last year that positive measures had been taken by the Israeli authorities to ease the blockade of the Gaza Strip, by approving the import of a greater quantity and range of goods, including construction materials for projects implemented by UNRWA and other UN agencies. Over the course of this year, the pace has picked up for approvals of construction projects as well as the actual import of construction materials required for their implementation. By October 2011, the Government of Israel had approved UNRWA construction projects valued at approximately $188 million. Despite this, UNRWA continued to face in 2010, and into 2011, very cumbersome and costly import procedures. These resulted in further delays to implementation of long-postponed infrastructure projects for housing, education, health, and water and sanitation.

UNRWA’s reconstruction plan for Gaza is estimated to cost $661 million for three years. Some $473 million in construction projects thus remain to be approved and implemented, which includes the rebuilding of thousands of refugee homes destroyed in the course of Israeli military operations dating back to 2003. The remaining reconstruction work reminds us – notwithstanding our appreciation of Israel’s security concerns – that such projects are about people’s lives, people’s education, and people’s health; in other words their own, equally important, human security.

While this progress in rebuilding infrastructure is a welcome and necessary step for the physical reconstruction of Gaza, economic and social recovery is simply impossible under conditions of blockade. The blockade violates international law, and the UN has stated repeatedly that restrictions on the crossings must be lifted. Furthermore, only with the resumption of trade through legitimate crossings, and with freer movement of people enabling educational, medical and other forms of access to the outside world, will Gaza be able to embark on the long and difficult path of recovery. UNRWA is witness to an unsustainable reality whereby, on the one hand, the productive capacity of Gaza and its people are being stifled, and on the other hand Gaza’s basic needs are being met through continuing emergency interventions by UNRWA and other UN agencies, a serious symptom of the aid dependency that the blockade has forced on the people of Gaza.

For the past four years, the Gaza Strip’s basic needs have been met either by international aid, or through the so-called tunnel economy. In view of the escalation in violence of the past few days, revealing once again the fragility of the situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, I would like to join the United Nations Secretary-General in appealing for reason and calm. Other recent developments, and in particular the agreement to release prisoners, will hopefully contribute to the creation of an environment in which the constraints to Gaza’s economy and welfare can finally be lifted, in the interest of stability and security for everyone in the region.

In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Israeli occupation continues to impact negatively on the human rights of Palestinians and whilst there have been improvements in the economic situation, the refugee community remains more vulnerable. Many communities remain isolated by the closure regime, with much of the West Bank divided into small enclaves, making economic and other activities extremely difficult and unpredictable. A recent report co-authored by the Palestinian Authority and a West Bank development institute estimates that settlement construction, the barrier, and trade and movement restrictions, were responsible for Palestinian economic losses of up to $6.9 billion in 2010. Clearly, meaningful development cannot take place under such conditions. Nor can aid be fully effective, as evidenced in the persistence of high rates of unemployment, poverty and food insecurity despite generous levels of donor assistance for the occupied Palestinian territory.

UNRWA is deeply concerned for communities in the West Bank including East Jerusalem with special vulnerabilities, for example those whose daily lives are impacted by the barrier, including families isolated by it and deprived of regular access to essential services, property, employment, and to social and family support. In East Jerusalem in 2011, home demolitions and revocations of Palestinian residency rights continue and coupled with settlement construction, pose a threat to the basic human security of Palestinians in the city. In the West Bank, the Bedouin have suffered an increase in demolitions of homes, water wells and other essential community assets. Twenty Bedouin communities on the Jerusalem periphery, with a total population of approximately 2,300, are currently threatened to be moved. Approximately 85% of these Bedouin communities are refugees, who have been displaced on at least one previous occasion.

The difficult situation in the West Bank and Gaza continues to demand that – in addition to its regular work – UNRWA provide special humanitarian assistance to those affected. The funding of UNRWA’s Emergency Appeal for the occupied Palestinian territory in 2010 fell well short of the needs, with only 39% of the requirements met. It looks to be a similar picture in 2011, the 11th year that we have appealed for emergency funding since the commencement of the second Intifada in 2000. Noting that the unemployment rate in Gaza remains one of the highest in the world, the large funding gap has forced us to halt new emergency employment there and to postpone procurement of food for the first distribution in 2012. In September, we issued a supplementary appeal for Gaza of $36 million to re-focus donor attention on critical needs there. In the West Bank our emergency protection activities target food insecure and other vulnerable refugees. Humanitarian needs in the West Bank and Gaza remained urgent and high in 2011, and seem certain to remain so in 2012.

I therefore urge donors, many of whom have been generous in the past, to provide sufficient funds to meet the needs of the most vulnerable.

Turning to Lebanon, in 2010, UNRWA welcomed the courageous step taken by Parliament to amend the labour laws and to open the door for employment opportunities for Palestinians in a large number of the professions and trades previously closed to them. It is such measures that will enable Palestine refugees to reduce their dependence on special humanitarian assistance while preserving their rights and entitlements as refugees. However, there must be full implementation of the decision if the law is to have any tangible socio-economic effect on marginalized and impoverished Palestinian refugee communities in Lebanon. In this connection, UNRWA notes the findings of a joint survey which the Agency carried out with the American University of Beirut which revealed that Palestine refugees suffer an unemployment rate of 56%, and two out of three are categorised as “poor”.

And indeed, Palestinians in Lebanon continue to live in some of the worst conditions experienced by refugees throughout the region. The camps and gatherings lack adequate basic infrastructure, including roads, electricity, and water, and housing is frequently unhealthy and unsafe. To address the special needs of the refugees in Lebanon, on 28 September UNRWA launched its “Restoring Dignity” appeal, covering a five-year period. The appeal requests $147 million needed to address chronic food insecurity, severely-restricted access to medical care, education, and lack of access to drinking water. There is also an education and skills-training component for youth. This request is for resources over and above the Agency’s programme budget, which of course will continue to support UNRWA’s core activities in education, health and relief and social services.

In Northern Lebanon, the Nahr el-Bared camp reconstruction project has seen progress. In late September, in the presence of major donors and senior government officials, UNRWA handed over 369 new homes to refugees; approximately 1,200 of whom have returned to the camp which was destroyed during a conflict in 2007. In the same hand-over ceremony, UNRWA inaugurated 56 shops for the camp’s returning entrepreneurs, and three new schools. These assets are essential to the recovery of Nahr el-Bared and of the area. However, the project remains unfunded by $195 million, and a relief component to assist the displaced families requires a further $26 million in order to support them until they can move back to the camp once their new homes are rebuilt.

In Syria, where Palestine refugees have enjoyed a wide range of social and economic rights since 1948, we are greatly concerned by the adverse political and security environment. Thus far, there is no indication of Palestine refugees being specifically targeted by violence. However, as highlighted by the experience in Yarmouk in July and Latakia in August, both of which involved refugee deaths and injuries along with forced displacement, the violence places all civilians at risk throughout Syria, including Palestine refugees. We are therefore distressed by the loss of civilian lives and the injuries sustained, and have called publicly, echoing the numerous and pressing appeals made by the United Nations’ Secretary-General and by the League of Arab States, for the violence to end and for the sanctity of human life to be respected. We have also made our concerns known to the Government of Syria and received assurances about its commitment to facilitating our operations.

UNRWA is responding to the increased humanitarian needs in a number of refugee communities in Syria, drawing almost entirely on existing UNRWA staff that are already engaged in implementation of our regular programme to a population of almost 500,000 registered refugees.

Jordan remains a stable environment for Palestine refugees and the Jordanian Government is a strong partner of UNRWA. This stability indeed provides an enabling environment in which UNRWA can focus on its programming and reform plans, subject to availability of resources.

However, the sheer size of the refugee population in Jordan, some two million registered refugees representing 42 percent of the total refugees registered with UNRWA, poses a substantial challenge for the Agency, particularly in its current financial crisis. Up to 13 percent of refugees live in poverty, many in remote areas of the Kingdom, far from both UNRWA and Government services. At this delicate juncture in the region, with the Government of Jordan engaged in important reforms and in improving its own support for vulnerable citizens, UNRWA endorses the Government’s call for the international community to honour its obligations to provide for the human development needs of the refugees.

This brings me to the Agency’s financial situation. The lack of adequate funding for the core services provided by UNRWA persists and is of considerable concern. Shortfalls in the past two years, 2009 and 2010, were bridged at the last minute – literally – thanks to the generosity of a limited number of donors. The situation continues to be precarious in 2011, with a shortfall, as I speak, of $46 million. This represents several weeks’ operating costs and major donors have already warned us that substantial additional funding cannot be expected this year. Accordingly, the Agency has reduced costs to a bare minimum, and its working capital is virtually depleted. Even with these conditions of extreme austerity, operations for the last month of the year are at risk, and I am compelled to appeal to Member States for urgent action in this respect.

Even more worrying, projected contributions in 2012-2013 fall substantially below the level required to achieve our human development goals. The global economic crisis places growing pressure on stagnant – and in some cases shrinking – donor aid budgets. At the same time, as waves of change sweep the Middle East, increased demands are being placed on the Agency. For example, the governments of Jordan and Syria have increased public sector salaries this year. As the salaries of UNRWA’s area staff are linked to public sector wages in the host countries, UNRWA faces growing pressure from its 30,000 staff to raise salaries, which would create additional financial costs in the 2012-13 biennium.

I appreciate that budgetary pressures are putting constraints on donors, but failure by UNRWA to provide basic services will have a serious and immediate impact on the refugees, increasing frustration and despair with negative repercussions on stability in the region. I therefore urge all donors, including non traditional ones and Arab States, to continue to find ways to increase funding for UNRWA, not just this year but in future years, and to place the Agency on a firm and predictable financial footing. Struggling to survive year to year, and at times month to month, is not the solution and does not allow us to improve our work and obtain better results in a systematic manner.

When I last addressed this Committee I reported that UNRWA was taking measures to improve its ability to mobilize resources. We have now revitalized our resource mobilization strategy. We wish to strengthen existing ties with major donors, as well as open new windows of opportunity with new ones. We are also extending our outreach to Member States with emerging economies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and seeking partnerships with the private sector and with charitable foundations and funds. I am encouraged by the response from new donors, such as Brazil, India, and Turkey, whilst others, such as Iraq, have resumed contributions after a gap of several years.

We have also been particularly encouraged by the strengthening of support from Arab Member States who have been extremely generous in their support to our emergency appeals and project needs. I also urge them to increase their contributions to the General Fund which enables us to operate.

And speaking of resources, I would be remiss if I did not mention funds received by UNRWA from the United Nations Regular Budget. As you know, in 1974, responding to a similar financial crisis facing UNRWA, the General Assembly strengthened the Agency’s financial sustainability by funding international staff posts from the UN’s assessed contributions budget. Earlier this year, the Secretary-General recommended to the General Assembly to increase the Agency’s funding further over the next four biennia. This recommendation was endorsed by the General Assembly through Resolution A/65/272 of 18 April 2011. The Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions has recently also endorsed this measure. I take this opportunity to thank the Secretary-General for his strong support for the Palestine refugees and appeal to all Member States to share the financial burden of providing adequate contributions to UNRWA’s work.

All this said, let me stress that in spite of the difficult financial and political context, UNRWA is well aware that it must do more with less, and must be as cost effective as possible in the current, difficult economic and financial environment. The Agency is thus moving forward with reform. Following our Organizational Development plan, implemented from 2006, we have developed the next phase of reform, “Sustaining Change,” with the support and endorsement of UNRWA’s Advisory Commission. It provides a comprehensive new approach that is results-oriented and innovative, and in which reform translates into concrete improvements to the quality of services delivered to our beneficiaries. Sustaining Change provides a strategic umbrella for programme reforms, enhanced resource mobilization and effective management systems.

To give a few examples, UNRWA is progressing well in all areas of education reform. Our recently launched education strategy does not seek quick fixes. It takes a comprehensive view to achieving quality education by adopting best practice interventions based on internationally recognized standards that are proven to deliver results for teachers, students, parents and communities. This also includes reforming our technical training centers to provide graduates with skills relevant to the market.

UNRWA has also made good progress in improving the quality of its health services through the Family Health Team approach to providing primary health care. This responds to the challenges posed by non-communicable diseases, which have become one of the main threats to the health of Palestine refugees and are the leading cause of death in the refugee community. In addition, an “e-health” initiative will digitize patient files, bringing inter-connectivity and electronic patient management to all UNRWA clinics and will optimize the efficient use of drugs and other medical supplies.

With progress underway on education and health reforms, priority must now be given to our relief and social services programme, aimed essentially at relieving poverty for the most vulnerable refugees. The Agency has completed considerable groundwork, including evaluations of its current programme and structures, and is now in a position to propose a draft reform strategy at the next meeting of the Advisory Commission in November. With an estimated 700,000 refugees unable to meet even their basic food requirements, UNRWA will seek host and donor support to ensure that they are meaningfully assisted.

Last but not least, reform is also a commitment to self-scrutiny. Our continued efforts to strengthen our management systems are evidenced by the undertaking of an independent evaluation of the OD programme in partnership with our key donors. The results of this evaluation, which has recently been concluded, will inform our decisions about further measures to improve our functioning.

Madam Chair,

UNRWA continues to operate in an extremely volatile region, providing essential services to Palestine refugees. Continuing to provide humanitarian services will not end the refugees’ plight; this can only be achieved through a political solution based on international law and UN resolutions.

Meanwhile however, and even more so at a time when peace discussions are stalled, UNRWA’s work remains essential, not only for those that rely on its services, but for the region as a whole, given the size and sensitivity of the refugee population.

UNRWA is committed to meeting the obligations under the mandate given to it by the General Assembly. Almost half a million children attend classes in our schools every day. Our health staff provide curative and preventative services to thousands of patients. Social workers strive to alleviate the poverty of the most vulnerable. At the same time, UNRWA is committed to creating opportunities for refugees, and equipping them to better seize those opportunities. Our Microfinance Programme has provided over 225,000 loans since 1991. Graduates from our schools can be found the world over, in multinational firms, and in globally renowned academies of learning. They are, equally, contributing to peaceful development in the countries that host them and in the occupied Palestinian territory. These achievements owe much to you – to donors who have financed their wellbeing, to the hosts who so generously accommodate them, and to the General Assembly, which has enshrined their rights in its resolutions for 63 years.

These achievements must continue to be supported, for the sake of millions of refugees whose future depends on your attention and generosity while, hopefully, a just and durable solution to the question of Palestine refugees is pursued. Because of course only this will ensure true self reliance and long awaited justice for 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 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank 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.