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Source: Department of Public Information (DPI)
12 March 2013

Press Conference

            Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



Warning that the plight of Palestine refugees in Syria was worsening, the United Nations chief relief official for Palestinians today urged Jordan to re-open its border to them.

“Access to these people is becoming more and more difficult,” Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said during a Headquarters news conference.

Mr. Grandi estimated that 400,000 of the some 520,000 Palestinian refugees inside Syria needed emergency cash, food, medicine and other supplies. UNRWA had serviced the refugees inside Syria for decades, but the fluid nature of the Syrian conflict that began in March 2011 and the subsequent lack of security had made it increasingly complicated and dangerous for UNRWA staff and other humanitarian workers to reach them.

Jordan, albeit already burdened by 2 million Palestinian refugees, must allow more in, he said, appealing to Jordanian authorities to “exercise a maximum humanitarian approach”.

Half of the Palestinians inside Syria had been displaced; 9,000 were sheltering in UNRWA schools, he said. Heavy fighting between the Syrian Government and opposition forces since December in the Yarmouk refugee camp, on the outskirts of Damascus, had forced UNRWA to withdraw from the area, leaving some 120,000 refugees nearly trapped. With Jordan’s border closed, some 32,000 Palestinians had fled to already overcrowded camps in Lebanon.

Many Palestinians in Syria had been killed, including five UNRWA staff; 10 more remained missing, he said. Compounding that problem, in the last several months, some Palestinians had taken sides militarily in the Syrian conflict — a move which could lead to retaliation by one group or another when a political settlement was reached. “We’re very concerned about that,” Mr. Grandi said.

Funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions, UNRWA provides socioeconomic services and humanitarian aid, protection and advocacy for some 5 million registered Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, pending a solution to their plight.

Mr. Grandi estimated UNRWA had received pledges for about half of its $91 million funding appeal for Syria for the first half of 2013. While laudable, that amount was not enough to meet burgeoning needs.

At present, the United States, Japan, Australia and the European Union contributed the lion’s share of UNRWA’s core funding, he said. The Agency also received significant financing from the Islamic Development Bank and several Arab nations, particularly for reconstruction projects in Gaza, as well as from Brazil and Turkey. He urged new donors with geopolitical strategic interests in the Middle East, particularly from Latin America and East Asia, to follow suit.

Mr. Grandi also noted that the Syria crisis had overshadowed other challenges facing the Agency in the West Bank and Gaza. He called on Israeli authorities to expedite approval of reconstruction projects in Gaza, so that aid could arrive and be put to use quickly.

Asked about the Security Council’s continued deadlock over a political agreement to resolve the Syrian conflict, he said the situation would inevitably lead to more carnage. He urged the Council to find common ground as soon as possible.

Asked about Palestinian groups fighting alongside the opposition forces in Syria, he said he had limited information to that effect. The situation was characterized by “extreme fluidity”, making it difficult to assess who was fighting on behalf of whom. He was quick to add that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian refugees had remained outside the conflict.

Asked what he meant by the “entrapment” of Palestinians in Lebanon, he said for decades, life had been harsh and highly restrictive for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and, therefore, the country was not the “best option” for refugees. But, with Jordan’s borders closed, many Palestinians had no choice but to remain. Mr. Grandi said he was “reasonably confident” that Lebanon would keep its borders open to new arrivals.

Regarding Arab countries’ donations, he said that while Saudi Arabia was UNRWA’s third-largest donor in 2011 and the Islamic Development Bank had generously supported Gaza reconstruction projects, Arab nations contributed just 4 per cent of the Agency’s core funding. The aim was to increase that figure to 7 per cent.

Asked whether the Agency aimed to focus more on South-South cooperation, he said that as traditional donors struggled to keep pace amid budgetary constraints, the Agency was looking to other financing methods, indeed. He added that he met with Japan’s Foreign Minister in 2011 to solicit that country’s support.

As to whether UNRWA had conducted an inquiry into the 3 March hangings of two Palestinians in the Yarmouk refugee camp suspected of collaborating with Syria’s Government, he said he did not know who was responsible and he expressed worries about possible retaliation.

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For information media • not an official record

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