"Tiptoeing away from UNRWA not an option", Commissioner-General tells Fourth Committee

08 November 2012

Filippo Grandi warns cuts in services politically risky, morally wrong

8 November 2012
New York

The Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Filippo Grandi, has called for a just solution to the plight of the five million Palestine refugees at the UN’s General Assembly in New York.

Speaking during his presentation to the General Assembly, Grandi also expressed “extreme concern” that most of the 518,000 Palestine refugees in Syria were now directly caught up in the conflict and called for greater protection for civilians in the country. A significant number of Palestine refugees as well as Syrians “had been killed, injured and compelled to leave their homes”, he said.

Grandi paid special tribute to the five Palestinian UNRWA staff members killed in Syria; the latest a female teacher. The loss reflected the vulnerability of the 500,000 Palestine refugees in the country and in the region in general. “The loss of our staff – Palestine refugees themselves – brings home to us in the starkest terms the human dimension of the Palestine refugee question”, Grandi said.

Palestine refugees bearing brunt of conflicts

In all UNRWA’s fields of operation, Grandi said, Palestine refugees suffered the negative effects of ongoing conflict. In Gaza, unless the blockade were lifted and the economy restarted, it would cease to be a liveable place by 2020. UNRWA was struggling to provide food assistance to almost 800,000 vulnerable refugees in Gaza and had also been forced to reduce a number of special activities, Grandi said.

In the West Bank, where refugees are almost 30 per cent of the total population, Grandi cited continued settlement expansion, settler violence, land expropriation, building prohibitions, increased demolitions, movement restrictions and the asphyxiation of traditional herding as “a gradual erosion of space and rights for Palestine refugees and indeed for all Palestinians… a cause of unbearable hardship for countless people, and a major obstacle to peace.” Grandi condemned a “lack of real action” to halt rights violations in the West Bank. “Public statements are made condemning settlement expansion and other violations of international law, but without political determination to stop it, the colonizing enterprise, which the United Nations and the international community clearly consider illegal, will move forward inexorably, with impunity, and with potentially dangerous consequences."

UNRWA was working closely with other United Nations agencies to try to help the most vulnerable Palestine refugee communities in exposed areas like East Jerusalem, but with humanitarian funding drying up, UNRWA had been forced to consider reducing some its services.

In Lebanon, conditions for Palestine refugees remained very difficult, Grandi said, with limited work and property rights contributing to widespread poverty and some of the worst living conditions in the region.

Refugee frustration growing

UNRWA’s task to provide assistance and protection to the five million Palestine refugees scattered throughout the Middle East was “not becoming any easier” and despite the political developments in the region, heralded by the so-called “Arab Spring”, Palestinians – and Palestine refugees in particular – remained sidelined. The stagnation of the Middle East peace process and a lack of a just solution to the issue of Palestine refugees were compounded by ongoing problems, Grandi said: “We should not be surprised that frustration is growing amongst the Palestine refugee population, reflecting the hopelessness and despair that overwhelm them.”

Against this grim backdrop, UNRWA continued to be an important point of reference for five million refugees, Grandi said, symbolising the international community’s support, but also providing crucial services like health and education, which for most refugees would not be affordable or available otherwise. UNRWA’s services constituted the minimum necessary to satisfy the social and economic rights of refugees, Grandi said.

UNRWA’s Commissioner-General warned that two key challenges hindered UNRWA’s ability to carry out its work: the scarcity of funds and the prevalence of conflict. UNRWA was chronically underfunded, he said – with only 41 per cent of its Emergency Appeal met in 2011 – and subject to renewed political attacks.

While paying tribute to the generosity of UNRWA’s main group of donors the Commissioner-General underlined that UNRWA budget supporting its education, health, relief, protection and social services is in a perilous state while refugee needs have grown and costs have increased. To that end he urgently appealed for funding at countries in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East whose economic growth was increasingly matched by a more assertive political role.

Call for action

Concluding his speech at the UN, the Commissioner-General of UNRWA delivered a stark warning that the frustration, marginalisation and “collective hopelessness” felt among Palestinians today could have disastrous consequences if continually ignored. “Palestine refugees may be a political question, but they are first and foremost people – ordinary men and women who rightly insist on not being discarded and forgotten about as the flotsam and jetsam of history.”

“UNRWA – neither the cause, nor the solution to the question of refugees, but the only tangible support felt by many of them – is more necessary than ever”, said Grandi. “Give us your backing, so that together we can ensure that Palestine refugees lead productive lives, while the political dimensions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are addressed in a comprehensive and just manner.”

Read the full text of the speech.

Background information

UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and is mandated to provide assistance and protection to a population of some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip to achieve their full potential in human development, pending a just solution to their plight. UNRWA’s services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance.

Financial support to UNRWA has not kept pace with an increased demand for services caused by growing numbers of registered refugees, expanding need, and deepening poverty. As a result, the Agency‘s General Fund, supporting UNRWA’s core activities and 97 per cent reliant on voluntary contributions, has begun each year with a large projected deficit. Currently the budget deficit stands at USD 37 million.

For more information, please contact:

Chris Gunness
UNRWA Spokesperson
Mobile: +972 (0)54 240 2659
Office: +972 (0)2 589 0267
[email protected]

Sami Mshasha
UNRWA Arabic Spokesperson
Mobile: +972 (0)54 216 8295
Office: +972 (0)2 589 0724
[email protected]

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.

For more information, please contact:

Two UNRWA students from Gaza enjoy recess in their first day of school. © 2017 UNRWA Photo by Rushdi Al-Saraj
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