During my many meetings with refugees and staff in the five fields of UNRWA operations over the last months, I have witnessed increased disarray and frustration, which sometimes has turned into anger. This year, a very harsh winter and the impact of the war in Ukraine on prices of food and fuel in the region add to the daily hardship you are facing. I witnessed this firsthand few days ago, when I met with Palestine refugees in Khan Danoun Camp and Yarmouk in Syria. Many refugees shared with me their struggle to meet their basic needs and how the socio-economic situation compels them to return to live in the midst of the rubble in Yarmouk.
I am also deeply concerned by the deteriorating security situation in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza. And I am acutely aware that recovery from the latest conflict in Gaza is progressing much more slowly than anticipated. In Lebanon, the desperation of Palestine refugees remains acute as many see no end to the unprecedented economic and financial crisis the country is going through. In Jordan, Palestine refugees deserve our continued attention as the economic challenges the country faces is impacting a growing number of them.
I will attend the sixth international Conference on Syria in early May in Brussels, where I will amplify the voice of Palestine refugees. I will stress the need to support those returning to their homes in Yarmouk and Ein el Tal through the rehabilitation of UNRWA schools, clinics and other services. In June, the Advisory Commission on UNRWA, gathering our major donors and Hosts, will convene in Lebanon. It will offer an opportunity to appeal to our donors to step up their support to Palestine refugees, with a focus on Lebanon and Syria where visits to camps will be organized. The annual pledging conference on UNRWA, organized at the UN General Assembly in June in New York, will offer another opportunity to call on the international community to show solidarity with Palestine refugees.
During my visits to the field, I remain impressed and motivated by the brilliance and eloquence of young Palestine refugee girls and boys, students and school parliamentarians. It is their aspirations and successes that I transmit to global donors to tell them that there is an entire young generation that continues to learn, dream and pursue what it hopes will be a bright future. And they deserve the international community’s support.
For over seven decades, UNRWA has been the international community’s temporary response to your unresolved plight. The Agency has been your primary advocate and provider of key services through its schools, health centres and various programmes. The quality of the Agency’s services and their positive impact on the lives of millions of Palestine refugees and the region have been praised by external evaluators throughout the years. The achievements of UNRWA school children and young people are a source of immense pride to the Agency and its personnel. Education illustrates in the best way the success of investing in the human development of refugees to help them thrive.
Every year though, and especially in the last decade, you heard that UNRWA gets cash-strapped and near to implosion and then almost miraculously survives. Every year, I and my predecessors call on donors to help avoid a disruption of services, to the point where it has become almost customary that a Commissioner-General must beg for help if we want the services to continue. Whilst I will unreservedly continue to do everything possible to raise the funds to sustain all services and your rights, I must admit that I find it mind-boggling to have to do this every year, while the positive impact of the Agency’s work on the lives of millions needs no validation. Standing on the edge of a cliff is distressing for everyone: primarily the refugees, but also the UNRWA staff and the hosts.
The painful reality is that in the last ten years, and despite immense outreach and fundraising efforts, the resources available to UNRWA have stagnated, while the needs of Palestine refugees and cost of operations keep increasing.
The now chronic underfunding of UNRWA is the result of a combination of shifting geopolitical priorities, new regional dynamics and the emergence of new humanitarian crises compounded by donor fatigue for one of the world’s longest unresolved conflicts. All these have led to a clear de-prioritization of the Palestinian issue, including most recently among some donors from the Arab region.
In addition, UNRWA has also increasingly been exposed to domestic politics in some of its traditional donor countries. Coordinated campaigns by organizations that aim to delegitimize and defund the Agency and erode the rights of Palestine refugees have increased in frequency and aggressivity.
UNRWA has so far succeeded to manage this chronic underfunding through continuous cost-control and austerity measures, to the point of exhausting them. This is not sustainable.
One can continue to hope that the financial implosion of the Agency will not happen. Or, we can admit that the current situation is untenable and will inevitably result in the erosion of the quality of the UNRWA services or, worse, to their interruption. I am convinced that doing nothing will do more harm than good.
In line with universal human rights, you have the right to receive basic services such as health, education and social protection through a social safety net. You also have the right to decent housing, to your narrative and collective memory and to your individual records, as there has been no solution offered yet to you and, regretfully, none seem to loom on the horizon.
My priority, with the support of the UN Secretary-General, remains to receive sufficient resources to cover all services to Palestine refugees and all salaries to UNRWA personnel.
The annual shortfalls to the core programme budget have regularly neared US$ 100 million over the last years. This is a modest amount when measured against the Agency’s contribution to human rights and stability in the region. We will continue to spare no effort by pursuing, increasing and redoubling our intense outreach, networking and discussions with all stakeholders including with donors in capitals, the private sector, philanthropists, including in the Muslim world, and international financial institutions.
But one must realistically look at the financial forecast and acknowledge that to continue relying almost exclusively on voluntary funding from donors would not be reasonable, given the world and regional dynamics.
Are there different ways to ensure that the services provided to you continue without the threat of disruption due to UNRWA’s lack of financial resources?
My priority is and remains your continued access to quality services and the protection of your rights and the UNRWA mandate. Within this framework, one option that is currently being explored is to maximize partnerships within the broader UN system. Central to this option, is that services could be provided on behalf and under the guidance of UNRWA, and hence strictly in line with the mandate UNRWA received from the UN General Assembly. Such partnerships have the potential to protect essential services and your rights from chronic underfunding.
Let me be clear: there is no handover or transfer of responsibilities and programmes on the table, and no tampering with the UNRWA mandate. UNRWA is and remains irreplaceable. We are gearing up to the voting on the renewal of the UNRWA mandate at the end of the year, and as there is no political prospect that includes Palestine refugees in sight, I expect continued high level of political support.
And as long as the UN General Assembly votes almost universally for UNRWA mandate, I will spare no efforts to advocate for your right to a dignified life until there is a just and lasting political solution to your plight.
Wishing you and your families a blessed season and a happy Eid.
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