The Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Mr. Peter Hansen, introduced his annual report to the General Assembly's Special Political and Decolonization Committee, highlighting the humanitarian role played by UNRWA and its importance in alleviating the suffering of Palestine refugees, particularly during the current turmoil in the occupied Palestinian territory. All ten speakers who took the floor on the first day of the debate, paid tribute to the dedication of UNRWA's staff and underlined the vital need for a continuation of the Agency's regular and emergency services for nearly 4 million Palestine refugees.
Mr. Hansen said that the past year has been one of continuous strife in the occupied Palestinian territory. He added that it was "a time of great hardship in which innocent lives have been lost, the economy has been devastated, poverty has spread and the prospects for a just and durable peace are now shrouded in dark clouds well beyond our sight". As a result of Israeli closures and other measures affecting the Palestinian economy, more than 64% of the Palestinian households have now been pushed below the poverty line. In refugee camps served by UNRWA, the figure of households below the poverty line exceeded 76%. In the Gaza Strip, the situation was even more acute, with almost 80% below the line.
"UNRWA has over the decades been credited with having contributed to stability in the refugee community and thereby to stability in the region," Mr. Hansen said. Furthermore, Mr. Hansen stressed that in view of increased sense of crisis and uncertainty following the tragic events of September 11 in New York and Washington DC and the conflict against terrorism, "there was a critical need for the refugees to feel assured that the commitments of the international community to their welfare will continue. UNRWA has a central role in this. Indeed, I should add, now more than ever, there is a vital need for this role".
In addition to difficulties brought about by the current situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, the Agency's regular services to Palestine refugees in its five areas of operations continued to be affected by UNRWA's precarious financial situation and the cumulative effects of budgetary deficits and cash flow crises that have characterized the Agency's finances in recent years.
Throughout its area of operations --in Jordan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Lebanon as well as in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip --UNRWA continued to face increased demands on its services, Mr. Hansen said. The substantial growth of the refugee population and the need to introduce new or expanded activities in its education, health, relief and social service programmes had placed growing pressure on UNRWA's staff and its network of facilities.
In October 2001, UNRWA's projected deficit remained at $26 million against a total budget of $311 million. The budgetary deficit was also coupled with an acute cash flow situation, threatening the Agency's ability to meet its budgetary obligations. Mr. Hansen called on the international community to make a concerted effort to bring UNRWA's finances on to a stable footing. He also welcomed the recent announcement by the European Commission, UNRWA's second largest donor, of its decision to increase its contribution to UNRWA by 45% next year.
Mr. Hansen informed the Committee that the Agency's draft regular budget for the biennium 2002-2003, amounting to $674. 8 million, represented the minimum allocation consistent with the maintenance of the quality and extent of the Agency's services for the refugees. UNRWA was pleased with the positive reception of its budget proposal by the Administrative Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) as well as by the Agency's Advisory Commission and hoped that this support would translate into increased contributions to UNRWA in 2002 and beyond.
UNRWA's response to the severe economic decline in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank due to Israeli closures and other measures was quick and effective. The Agency launched a series of emergency appeals to the international community, which responded generously and promptly to the first and flash appeals with pledges exceeding the amount requested by some 5%. The latest UNRWA appeal was issued in June 2001 and requested $76. 9 million covering the seven months from June to December has so far yielded pledges estimated at $46 million. In view of the continuing need for the Agency's emergency programme, Mr. Hansen urged the international community to bridge the remaining gap in the third emergency appeal.
"The emergency programme has no doubt added a new and very large burden on to the shoulders of our staff, but I must at the same time express some satisfaction in the recognition it represents of UNRWA's unique capacity in being able to deliver humanitarian assistance, and to deliver it efficiently and effectively", Mr. Hansen added.
With the funds earmarked for the emergency programme, UNRWA is providing nutritional security to 127, 000 refugee families in the Gaza Strip and 90, 000 families in the West Bank, reconstructing or repairing more than 190 shelters for refugees that have been damaged or destroyed by Israeli shelling or bulldozing, providing compensatory educational activities to over 230, 000 pupils, as well as temporary employment opportunities to thousands of unemployed refugees.
The Committee was briefed about the Agency's difficulties in delivering regular and emergency assistance to refugees in the occupied Palestinian territory due to Israeli restrictions affecting the movement of Agency staff, goods and vehicles. Mr. Hansen added that UNRWA's efforts to resolve the access issue with the relevant Israeli authorities, have unfortunately remained unsuccessful in arriving at pragmatic solutions to the Agency's difficulties. The Committee was informed that the new procedures imposed by the Israeli authorities are inconsistent with the provisions of the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, which specifically exempt UN property from searches. "Our ability to deliver humanitarian assistance effectively is severely affected by the whole range of Israeli closures, checkpoints, blockades and other restrictions on movements of staff and goods", Mr. Hansen said.
While emergency requirements in the occupied Palestinian territory represented an added burden on the shoulders of Agency staff, Mr. Hansen said that the continuing major challenge for UNRWA was that of providing its core services to a growing refugee population with limited resources. Despite this and other challenges, the Agency has made a major contribution to the continuing development of human resources in the refugee community. Due to this, the Palestine refugee community has the highest educational levels in the region and is in the forefront in the region in terms of its social development.
In conclusion, Mr. Hansen expressed his admiration to the way Agency staff risked their lives to go out into the field and provide immediate sustenance to refugees in need, who continue to look to the Agency for shelter and relief. The Special Political and Decolonization Committee's debate on the work of UNRWA is scheduled to resume on Thursday, 1 November, and to conclude on Friday, 2 November.