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Source: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
24 April 2009

Statement by UNRWA Commissioner-General

Reflections on the role of UNRWA

Panel Debate, Woodrow Wilson Institute, Washington DC, 24 April 2009

Chair, distinguished guests:

I am pleased to be here to participate in this discussion, which is part of a series of events UNRWA is staging to commemorate its 60th anniversary. My special thanks go to the Woodrow Wilson Center for hosting us.

On 8 December this year, UNRWA will be sixty years old. For UNRWA, marking the occasion calls to mind the elusiveness of a just and lasting solution to the plight of Palestine refugees. UNRWA’s work and its very existence rest on providing essential services to refugees, a task it has performed, effectively and consistently since its creation. It is hardly a cause for celebration that six decades on, some 4.6 million Palestinians remain in a state of exile, with no immediate prospect of the resolution of their plight. Nevertheless, this poignant anniversary is an opportunity to recall the contribution UNRWA has made to the well-being of generations of Palestine refugees, to reflect on how UNRWA’s constant, supportive presence has influenced the communities in which refugees live and to ponder the challenges the future holds for them in one of the most volatile regions of the world.

I shall address our topic this morning by briefly outlining the work of UNRWA and describing our main challenges. I will address the conditions faced by Palestine refugees in our areas of operations, with a focus on the occupied Palestinian territory. I will conclude with a few observations on the broader context.

UNRWA was established in 1949 to respond to the needs of some 750,000 Palestinians who lost both homes and livelihoods during the 1948 conflict and were forced into exile. Today, UNRWA serves a population of 4.6 million registered refugees, nearly half of them under 20 years of age, in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. We offer humanitarian and human development services through over 29,000 staff, almost all of whom are Palestine refugees themselves.

UNRWA is unique among United Nations agencies in directly providing essential public services, mainly primary education, primary health care, relief and social services, infrastructure and camp improvement and microfinance. This function as a direct service provider gives UNRWA special status in Palestine refugee communities throughout the Middle East. It also explains UNRWA’s large size and operational scope. There are some 16,000 teachers in our 683 elementary and preparatory schools; several million patients visit our 138 health clinics; our social workers provide support to over a quarter of a million people living in particular hardship, while supporting 65 community-run women’s centers and managing our 37 rehabilitation centers for refugees with disabilities.

Notwithstanding our unique modus operandi, UNRWA is not exceptional in serving generations of refugees. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, the continuing entitlement of refugees to receive assistance as long as they need it is a standard application of the principle of family unity – a principle well-established in international refugee law and practice around the world.

Besides programmes promoting the human development and self-reliance of the refugees, we also deliver emergency services in Lebanon and in the occupied Palestinian territory to those affected by armed conflict. The focus of our emergency work is on those made most vulnerable by violence, poverty and social exclusion. Chronic conflict has also made UNRWA’s protection role more urgent, not least with regard to working with States and other partners to enhance respect for international standards, including human rights and humanitarian legal instruments.

I will now turn to the challenges UNRWA faces.

Every year, the natural growth of the refugee population – more than four-fold since 1949 – generates increased needs. This, coupled with rising living expenses, the declining purchasing power of the dollar and rising food and fuel costs results in ever-higher operating costs for UNRWA. In the occupied Palestinian territory, substantial additional costs are also incurred as a direct result of the blockade of Gaza and a tight closure regime and movement restrictions imposed by Israel in the West Bank. Examples of these include costs for storage, demurrage, transportation and palletization of humanitarian goods, lost staff days, labour replacement and associated administrative costs.

These factors aggravate UNRWA’s chronic budget deficit. UNRWA’s budget is not financed through UN assessed contributions, other than to pay for a thin stratum of 119 international staff. For services to refugees we rely entirely on the voluntary support and generosity of the international community, itself strained by the financial crisis and competing global priorities. The United States is our largest single donor, contributing just under 20 per cent of our combined annual budget lines.

In 2008, we requested $ 544.6 million to deliver our General Fund programmes and received only $ 470.7 million, with adverse consequences on the quality of our services, our capacity to improve the living conditions of the refugees and our ability to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of our work. To address these problems, in 2007 we embarked on a three-year management reform programme to modernize and institutionally strengthen the agency in such areas as leadership, human resources management, programme management and organizational processes. These ongoing reforms reflect a serious effort to revitalize the agency and its effectiveness, while maintaining the confidence of donors and refugees alike.

Besides the requirements of the General Fund budget, which remain as compelling this year as in previous ones, we have been faced with increased needs for emergency relief, principally in the occupied Palestinian territory. In 2008, our original emergency appeal was for $ 237.7 million. To respond to the recent conflict in Gaza, we have requested $ 326 million as part of a nine-month United Nations Consolidated Flash Appeal, funded to $173 million. This covers relief work, recovery and medium-term reconstruction in such areas as cash assistance, education, food security, health, protection, pycho-social support and shelter.

Distinguished guests:

In an altogether different dimension to UNRWA’s internal challenges are the plight of Palestine refugees since 1948, the occupation of Palestinian lands since 1967 and, more generally, the adverse circumstances endured by the Palestinian people for the past 60 years. The recent tragedy in Gaza raised the global visibility of the Palestinian question. It also highlighted the urgent need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to establish a viable Palestinian state living in peace and security with its neighbors.

The extent of civilian casualties, the level of violence and material devastation, the violations of human rights and the dire humanitarian and socio-economic consequences resulting from the closure of Gaza’s borders, are painful reminders of the desperate conditions in which the ordinary people of Gaza live and of the extreme distress to which they are subjected.

1.4 million Palestinians live in Gaza, some 70% of whom are refugees. Besides the profound impact of the recent conflict and destruction on their lives and well-being, the blockade of Gaza, now in its third consecutive year, remains the major impediment to restoring any semblance of normal life to Gazans. Without freedom of movement and the free two-way flow of people, commerce, currency and humanitarian supplies, there is simply no scope for recovery, reconstruction and a life of dignity, no matter how generous the financial contributions of the international donor community.

Billions of dollars have been poured into the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the last fifteen years. Yet, the impact on the economy, development and human security of the population has been extremely limited, principally because of continuing occupation and territorial expansion, the persistence of armed conflict, the fragmentation of the occupied Palestinian territory and the strict closure regime imposed by Israel. Indeed, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip have become narrow, confined enclaves of high Palestinian population density.

These enclaves are subject to the application of military law and to stringent regimes of control which limit citizenship status for Palestinians and encroach on their human rights. Gaza and the West Bank now consist of islands of populations, isolated and separated from one another by a range of obstacles to access and movement such as a complex permits system, military checkpoints, roadblocks, settlements, a dual segregated by-pass road system and the separation barrier. In February this year, UN OCHA reported that there were 628 physical obstacles to Palestinian movement in the West Bank. 57% of the barrier has been completed with a further 9% under construction. Settlements continue to expand. So while the West Bank has experienced less conflict than Gaza in recent years, the situation there also remains of deep concern.

UNRWA, together with its humanitarian and human development partners, will continue to do its best to protect Palestine refugees and provide them with essential services. In so doing, we are not perpetuating their predicament, but contributing to alleviating – if only modestly- their suffering, promoting self-reliance and sustaining hope for a better future. Through our efforts, and with the support of host countries, donors and other agencies, we exert a stabilizing influence on a volatile region. Ultimately, however, the future of Palestinians and Palestine refugees rests on the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

UNRWA’s mandate for protection and assistance entails a role to appeal to States on matters affecting the long-term interests of Palestine refugees. In keeping with this role – which acquires greater urgency in times when refugee interests appear to be omitted from the mainstream of diplomatic efforts - I will conclude with a few words on the broader context.

There is no shortage of creative ideas, detailed plans, agreements and initiatives that foresee an end to the occupation, the establishment of a viable independent Palestinian state and a just, inclusive, and durable peace. There is also no lack of understanding of the futility of war as a method of resolving disputes over citizenship, land or territory, the importance of the peaceful resolution of disputes, or the need to respect human rights and international law.

What remains elusive is the political will and the willingness to execute a change in our collective approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such a change would require us to go beyond the current mindset, embracing a more multilateral and regional approach to resolving the conflict and addressing the hard issues that the process has hitherto sought to evade, notably the well-known final status matters, not the least of which is the question of Palestine refugees. We must tackle this issue in a manner consistent with refugee rights, recognizing that Palestine refugees are a significant part of the process and acknowledging that reflecting their concerns and interests in the negotiating process will determine its legitimacy and promote its acceptance.

Alongside an approach that gives due recognition to refugee interests, we must ensure reconciliation among Palestinians, the restoration of the integrity of the occupied Palestinian population and recognition of the wishes of the majority of Palestinians who – like the majority of Israelis- desire nothing more than the opportunity to pursue a normal life in a climate of peace and security.

You may think this is more easily said than done. That may well be. Nevertheless, I firmly believe it can be done. The question is how much more time we can waste and how much more distress and torment we will allow civilians on all sides to endure before we rise to the challenge of laying this conflict to rest.

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