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Source: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
15 March 2008


Statement by Filippo Grandi, Deputy Commissioner-General, UNRWA

UNRWA: Present Dilemmas and Future Prospects

International Workshop

The Palestinian Refugees: A Comparative Approach

Law Institute, Bir Zeit University, 15 March 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is impossible to choose a moment in the past six decades in which the situation of Palestine refugees was not difficult. Complex, often dramatic challenges, after all, characterize the refugee condition everywhere in the world and at any time in history – and those who fled Palestine during the nakba, and their descendants, have not escaped the harsh rules of flight and refuge. Multiple conflicts, economic and social hardship, renewed displacement as is the case for Palestinians presently trying to flee Iraq, the political intractability of the Palestinian refugee problem, and the mere passing of time in the absence of a solution, have compounded the challenges of forcibly living away from home, and aggravated the pains of exile.

Much has been said from other perspectives. I will focus on the challenges facing refugees (through the UNRWA perspective) and facing UNRWA itself.

Generation after generation, UNRWA has worked with refugees, trying to address the challenges, and mitigate the pain. Critics often say that UNRWA helps protract the refugee problem. I do not need to tell you that this is of course wrong. It is the lack of a solution – a solution that can be found only in the political sphere – that has perpetuated the refugee problem. UNRWA, during this long period of time, has offered refugees relief and protection from hardship as well as opportunities for a better life in spite of continued exile.

It is not always easy to define the work of UNRWA – a unique organization in the United Nations system. It is, indeed, a humanitarian agency, because war, violence and repeated displacement have obliged refugees to seek emergency assistance. But UNRWA is not only humanitarian in nature – its primary focus is on public services. On the other hand, it is different from development organizations providing technical assistance to build institutions or develop the economy, since it serves a population in exile, and deprived of statehood.

In recent years, the Agency has thus defined its mission by reference to the concept of “human development”. Human development is more than simply the combined sum of providing humanitarian relief and some aspects of development assistance - concepts that are often treated as mutually exclusive. Rather, as defined by the United Nations, the human development of a population requires the enlargement of people’s choices. The three essential choices are to lead a long and healthy life, to acquire knowledge and to have access to resources needed for a decent standard of living. If these choices are not available, many other opportunities remain inaccessible. But human development does not end there. It is not enough for a person to be healthy, knowledgeable and skilled. He or she must have the freedom and opportunity to make the most of these capabilities.

Let me remind you that what UNRWA does to foster the human development of Palestine refugees is neither small, nor easy, especially where it operates in situations of conflict or occupation. We run 668 elementary, preparatory and secondary schools; we educate half a million students – of whom almost 200,000 in Gaza alone; and we employ approximately 20,000 teachers. We manage 127 primary health care facilities. We provide aid to a quarter million poor and vulnerable refugees. We have made 120,000 loans worth US$126 million to Palestinian microenterprises over the past 15 years.

In recent years, however, the Agency has attempted to measure success by reference to the quality of services.

Focusing on quality can be successful only if adequate resources are invested in our programmes. Here, however, lies a first and difficult challenge. Although UNRWA – for the services that it provides – operates almost as a government, it cannot raise revenue through the imposition of taxes. We entirely depend on our donors and the resources available in their foreign aid budgets. Needless to say, competition for these resources keeps increasing. Even more significantly, the system of international aid is geared towards short-term humanitarian crises, or technical assistance in situations requiring traditional economic or institutional development. This system, with its limited resources, struggles to cope with the expanding needs of an agency whose budget includes mostly the salaries of teachers, doctors, nurses and social workers, in a context characterized by high population growth, the global rise in food and energy prices, the threat of economic recession, and the decline in state subsidies in regional economies.

The victim is the quality of UNRWA’s programmes. In recent years, 77 per cent of UNRWA schools operated on a double-shift basis. The conditions of many of our schools have deteriorated to a level that demands that they be comprehensively refurbished or completely demolished and reconstructed. The training of teachers receives inadequate funding. Our doctors see, on average, almost 40 per cent more patients per day than international norms recommend. Our Special Hardship Cases programme provides safety net assistance to a fraction of those living in poverty. One example of the severity of the “quality crisis” comes from Gaza where we conducted universal examinations of our students in grades 4 and 6. The results are worrying. Forty per cent of students failed Arabic. Fifty per cent failed Mathematics and 60 per cent failed English. Of course, core contributors to these results are the continuing Israeli occupation and recent violence in the Strip. But lack of resources has compounded the situation.

UNRWA is responding to these challenges. We are currently in the second year of a comprehensive management reform process which has its origins in the Geneva Conference of 2004, and the objective of which is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of services. We are doing so through improved needs based programming, more effective use of human resources, emphasizing the importance of leadership and management at all levels, developing cross-programme issues and especially UNRWA’s protection function, and streamlining unnecessary bureaucracy.

Our Schools of Excellence initiative in Gaza is one practical manifestation of reform, and a courageous experiment in improving quality under almost impossible circumstances. It focuses on better assessment of needs, more strategic deployment of resources, and greater community involvement and participation.

Another concrete example is the Neirab Rehabilitation Project in Syria. The project, which we commenced in 2003, has relocated 300 families from the grossly overcrowded and unhealthy heart of the Neirab camp, near Aleppo, to new housing built on nearby land provided by the government in another refugee camp, Ain el Tal. In the second phase, housing and other infrastructure in the now decongested Neirab camp will be dramatically improved. The project has broken many traditional taboos: for the first time all stakeholders have agreed that improving living conditions did not compromise the right of return. Neirab represents a strategic multi-sectoral camp development approach, with strong participation by the refugees and the commendable support of the Syrian Government.

The reconstruction of Nahr El Bared camp in northern Lebanon represents another test for the Agency and will be by far the biggest single project ever undertaken by UNRWA, requiring substantive support from donors. A master plan for the new camp was recently announced by the Prime Minister and the Commissioner-General. UNRWA played an important role in formulating this plan, not least by holding close consultations with the displaced refugee community. The plan thus strikes a useful balance between the security concerns of the civilian and military authorities, and, just as importantly, the protection needs of the refugees. This was no small feat – and a very significant one in the current, fragile situation in Lebanon.

However, despite the gains being realized through reforms, the Agency does not, and will not, have sufficient funds to do everything necessary to address the needs of the refugees unless it is given significant and additional resources. The Agency has thus to make choices, and this is a second, very difficult challenge. The demands put on UNRWA are many, and growing, but we can no longer say “yes” to everything asked of us. Although all Palestine refugees are entitled to its services, as stipulated in General Assembly resolutions and other international instruments, UNRWA must at least ensure that these services are provided to those whose human development needs are greatest. Better targeting is therefore required, for example in delivering relief and social assistance, and some of our health services. This is not in contradiction with UNRWA’s mandate over all Palestine refugees requiring its services, but it is dictated by the need to make the most effective use of scarce resources. And the Agency, although it has clearly a unique role in serving and protecting Palestine refugees, must also build more effective partnerships with host authorities, other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations who can assist in improving the health, knowledge and skills of Palestine refugees.

This discussion sometimes gives rise to suspicions that UNRWA is winding down or handing over its operations. Once again, this is simply not true. The Agency is a subsidiary organ of the United Nations General Assembly. To determine its end or declare that the Palestine refugee issue has been resolved is entirely in the hands of the international community. On the other hand, UNRWA is governed by a founding resolution that entrusts the Commissioner-General with significant latitude to define the Agency’s operations. The Commissioner-General is untiring in her attempts to garner additional support. The Agency has never before enjoyed a donor base broader than it has today. UNRWA will continue to work towards the human development of Palestine refugees so long as the refugee issue remains unresolved and a peaceful solution to the conflict is outstanding. We will continue to deliver services to all refugees who need them, and we will continue to respond to emergency situations – but we want to do so in a more effective manner, appealing to donors for additional support, and ensuring at the same time that the most vulnerable among the refugees do not fall through the cracks of dwindling resources, if necessary by giving them priority among beneficiaries.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As I noted, improving the health, knowledge and skills of refugees is only half the challenge. Human development requires that refugees be given the opportunity to make the most of their choices.

As you are all aware, a majority of Palestine refugees in Jordan and Syria enjoy almost all of the rights and opportunities afforded to Jordanian and Syrian nationals. Significant developments have occurred since 2005 in Lebanon, where Palestine refugees have benefited from the openness, support and understanding of the Lebanese Government. In October 2005, UNRWA launched a “Camp Improvement Initiative”, embracing $50 million worth of projects throughout Lebanon, designed to address the particularly squalid conditions in refugee camps, long neglected due to factors beyond the Agency’s control. The Government, headed by Prime Minister Siniora, not only supported the initiative from the outset, but also helped raise significant funds, allowing work to commence. Positive trends for Palestine refugees in Lebanon suffered – like for the Lebanese population at large – from the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, and the conflict leading to the destruction of Nahr-el-Bared in 2007. However, these trends continue: recently the Government undertook to issue documentation to nearly 4,000 Palestinian refugees who arrived in Lebanon after 1967 and have never been registered with UNRWA or the Government. Nevertheless, there is a long way to go before Palestine refugees enjoy in Lebanon all the human rights and freedoms enshrined in international legal instruments. Positive trends are also endangered by the present political deadlock in the country and by the misuse of the Palestinian refugee issue in some politicians’ rhetoric.

Speaking of the challenges facing Palestine refugees and UNRWA would be sadly incomplete without mentioning ticianefugee issue in some pearge - from anon suffered - like conflict leading to the destruction of Nahr-el-Bared in 2007 adthe occupied Palestinian territory, where they are, of course, immense. The vulnerability of the refugees in the West Bank and Gaza is, at this stage, almost indistinguishable from the vulnerability of the rest of the population. All are strangled by countless obstacles and restrictions imposed by Israel. The many breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights law continue to be well documented by, amongst others, the Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur, John Dugard. I need not repeat these here, although any of the five thousand UNRWA employees in the West Bank could speak at length about the manner in which the refugees they serve, as well as the rest of the population (including, by the way, UNRWA employees themselves) face an increasing and deliberately planned network of obstacles in gaining access to schools, hospitals, markets and places of worship, or simply in leading normal – and normally mobile – family lives. There is a clear and obvious link between the ever expanding structure and infrastructure of the occupation and the decline being seen in practically every socio-economic indicator.

In Gaza, in addition to the hardship caused by the well-known closure of the Strip’s borders, by military incursions and by the economic boycott, the population is suffering from the disastrous effects of political isolation and the continuing fracture in the Palestinian leadership. It is not for UNRWA to comment on matters which are political in nature. However, we are bound by the duty of the mandate given to us by the international community to repeat once more that the impasse caused by the policies chosen by most of the international community in the past two years is having an immeasurably negative impact on the human development of the Gazan population – over 80 per cent of whom are refugees. It is for this reason that the Commissioner-General continues to advocate not only that violence against civilians must cease in all its forms – be it the launching of rockets on Israeli towns, the grossly disproportionate military reaction of the Israeli Defence Forces or inter-Palestinian fighting – but also for dialogue to be renewed between all concerned actors. The crisis of Gaza is humanitarian only in its effects. Its solution, as is abundantly clear to all, can only be found through courageous political action.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Throughout six decades, UNRWA has often been recognized as an element of stability, moderation and hope in a region torn by conflict and violence. My appeal today is for this role, modest as it may be, to be strengthened – and not weakened – by the international community. For this, as I have said, more financial resources from all donors, including Arab governments and institutions, are required to avoid the quality of UNRWA’s services to decline below acceptable levels.

However, this will not be enough. The definition of human development warns that if it is not balanced by the formation of human capabilities and the possibility to make use of acquired abilities, considerable frustration may result. In today’s Middle East, the road to normality – the normality of peaceful coexistence and regional economic development which alone can allow people to progress and prosper – remains fraught with difficulties. If the opportunities that we provide to almost five million refugees in one of the most volatile regions of the world are not to be wasted, at great human and political cost, and if irreversible, dangerous anger and frustration are not to substitute the hope and trust which human development strives to build, it is important that political leaders in Israel and Palestine, in the West and in the Arab world, show more courage and more transparent determination in achieving peace, and start doing so by building trust through real progress on the ground, instead of the stagnation or even deterioration that we witness today, in spite of the Annapolis promises.

The Palestinian communities among whom my colleagues at UNRWA live and work are telling us that today this message is more urgent than ever.

Thank you.


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