Your Excellency the Secretary General, Your Excellencies,
It is an honour to be invited to address the Council of Ministers of the Arab League. I am most grateful to the Secretary General for this opportunity, which is evidence of the Arab League’s concern for the most vulnerable among Palestinians, namely Palestine refugees.
Your Excellencies will be aware that my Agency’s mandate is to address the humanitarian and human development needs of Palestine refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. Our largest programme – and over half of our budget – is devoted to educating close to half a million refugee children every year. UNRWA’s 127 clinics provide comprehensive primary health care services that count among its achievements the eradication of communicable diseases and nearly 100% childhood vaccinations. We offer food and social services to the poorest of the poor: the widows, the aged, the handicapped and the sick. We address shelter, sewerage, and environmental health needs in 58 camps. And when – as sadly happens all too often - armed conflict triggers emergency situations in Gaza, the West Bank or Lebanon, our programmes for temporary employment, cash assistance, food distribution and shelter provision contribute to the refugees’ survival.
My Agency’s humanitarian work is reinforced by its role as a global advocate for the protection and care of Palestine refugees. Our extensive field presence, with some 27,000 staff, most of them refugees themselves, gives us unique, first-hand insights into the living conditions of refugees and the threats they face from de-facto sanctions and armed conflict. Drawing on these insights, we call the attention of regional and international actors to the realities faced by Palestine refugees. We also remind these actors of the responsibilities they bear under international law to give precedence to peaceful methods for resolving disputes; to minimize human suffering, protect civilian lives, and to act with restraint in armed conflict; to safeguard livelihoods and promote humane socio-economic conditions at all times; and ultimately to fashion a just and lasting answer to the refugee question.
UNRWA’s years of consistent and committed service have earned it the trust and confidence of refugees and all who have a genuine interest in the welfare of Palestinians. The Agency and its work have come to symbolize the view that the international community cares about human and humanitarian needs and wants these to be addressed in spite of the challenging political and security environment. Our humanitarian presence mitigates the refugee community’s sense of isolation and thus serves as a stabilizing influence in the midst of tensions and conflict.
The regional scene
Your Excellencies, allow me to highlight some of the major challenges in the region as we see them. Wherever we look on the regional scene we see difficulties for Palestine refugees. Over one million in Gaza are living in a state of hardship and uncertainty, fearful of further conflict and deeper decline in their conditions, but not knowing whence the next crises will emerge. Gazan civilians continue to suffer the effects of an armed conflict in which the injunctions of restraint and proportionality stipulated under international law are ignored. On the present trajectory of isolation and de facto sanctions, poverty, unemployment and socio-economic impoverishment will soon reach unconscionable levels.
The situation of Palestine refugees in the West Bank is scarcely much better. An unrelenting military campaign has made arbitrary arrests, the demolition of homes, civilian deaths, injuries and extreme humiliation a part of Palestinian life. Closures, road blocks, the Wall and restrictive Israeli administrative practices have imposed indignity and material hardship on many Palestinians with adverse consequences for the economy. Deprived of access to their lands and livelihoods, many refugees find it impossible to sustain themselves and their families and are forced to depend on international humanitarian support.
In Lebanon 31,000 refugees have been rendered homeless by the fighting in Nahr El Bared Camp. Most have also lost their livelihoods. In concert with the Lebanese government, UNRWA will soon launch an Emergency Appeal to fund assistance to displaced refugees over the next twelve months.
The situation of the refugees in Lebanon who are not directly affected by the battle of Nahr El Bared is less acute. Nevertheless, their living conditions and their access to economic opportunities are a matter of grave concern. We are grateful to the Lebanese government for recognizing the refugees’ needs and for taking up the challenge to address them.
In Jordan and Syria the refugees face less dramatic circumstances than those in Gaza or North Lebanon, and the respective governments are supportive and generous. That is not to say, however, that the material conditions in which the refugees live are to be envied. There is much room for enhancing refugees’ standard of living, expanding their possibilities for economic self-reliance and for improving the quality of our services.
Your Excellencies, this is an appropriate juncture at which to brief you on the financial challenges facing my Agency, which, as you know, is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions. Owing to a chronic funding shortfall, UNRWA is struggling to maintain standards in our schools and clinics. A decade and a half of inadequate funding has taken a heavy toll on the quality of our services. This is painfully obvious in Gaza schools where tests show that over 70% of children do not make the grade in mathematics and Arabic. As the refugee population in most areas naturally increases, and as more and more refugee families fall into poverty, the demands for our services increase while our income remains more or less stagnant. This decline in the quality of services is insidious, and demoralizing to refugees. In the long term, it is also dangerous because it hampers the ability of refugees to become self-reliant, and jeopardizes the human development ideals to which our programmes aspire.
In many of our schools classes of over 40 children pack the schoolrooms. Many schools operate double shifts. School buildings are crumbling and equipment ageing. Children sit at the same wooden desks at which their parents sat. In our clinics many weary doctors struggle through daily case loads of a hundred patients. The clinics are overflowing. Too often, conditions in the camps sap the energy and optimism of refugee youth, fuelling discontent and disillusionment about their future.
UNRWA’s regular programmes exist on a basic income of 375 million dollars a year. I use the word "exist" deliberately because current funding levels do not allow us to develop, improve or even maintain our standards. To do these things to the minimum level required we would need $ 107 million more a year. And that is not counting our emergency programmes for the occupied Palestinian territory - job creation, extra food and cash support for the most needy. This year, these emergency programmes appear likely to be under-funded to the tune of 120 million dollars.
The Secretary General has been kind enough to circulate my letter to him which cited some statistics about Arab donor support for UNRWA. The facts speak for themselves; I do not need to belabour them. Last year Arab donations accounted for less than 2% of our basic needs. Including support for special programmes and construction projects, that proportion was only 4%.
On behalf of the Palestine refugees we are very grateful for the generous contributions made by Gulf donors, in particular the United Arab Emirates government, the UAE Red Crescent organization and the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have financed construction projects in the occupied Palestinian territory which stand out in an otherwise gloomy picture. As regards UNRWA’s General Fund, I should mention our appreciation for the government of Kuwait’s consistent annual contributions.
We also recognize with deep appreciation the sacrifices made and the heavy costs borne by Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, and by the Palestinian Authority, in hosting Palestine refugees. The host authorities are among UNRWA’s most important partners. Without them, our work would not be possible. And we do not overlook the other ways in which Arab countries have given generous support to the Palestinians through the Palestinian Authority and others, such as the 12 million dollars sent by Saudi Arabia to help the displaced of Nahr El Bared and the 5 million dollars promised by His Highness Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE.
Whilst acknowledging with gratitude the generosity of your donations, there is no escaping the fact that the contributions made by Arab donors to UNRWA’s General Fund are modest by any standard – not least in comparison to contributions from other donors who have no historical or cultural relationship to Palestine refugees. With these considerations in mind, we would warmly welcome the achievement of the target of 7.73% of UNRWA’s regular budget as endorsed by Arab League resolutions.
Your Excellencies, UNRWA is not seeking funds for itself. These are funds to help Palestine refugees who are, generally speaking, the poorest and most vulnerable of the Palestinians. In Gaza, Lebanon and elsewhere they cry out for your support. Might this not be an opportunity to show solidarity, through UNRWA? It would alleviate suffering. It would send a strong signal of support in hard times. And it would demonstrate the compassion and generosity of their fellow Arabs towards those who, although they find themselves in dire need, are in the front line of the Arab world’s struggle for recognition of its rights and concerns.
Your Excellencies, with your support we will continue striving to maintain and enhance our services and to advocate the cause of Palestine refugees. Yet we harbour no illusions about the limits of humanitarian activities – limits that are acutely evident from the experience in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. The work of UNRWA and other humanitarian and development actors – indispensable as this may be – must be complemented by courageous, creative, inclusive political action to resolve the core causes of recurrent crises.
In the normal scheme of international affairs, humanitarian work is meant to be temporary in nature. It is intended to address human and human development needs and to nurture capacity for self-reliance – not indefinitely – but on an interim basis, until such time that conditions enable the beneficiaries to provide for themselves and assume responsibility for their own destiny. In the case of Palestinians and Palestine refugees, what should be transient threatens to become indefinite. After fifty-nine years of humanitarian support to Palestine refugees, the need to address Palestinian political aspirations grows more urgent by the day. The fact that statehood remains elusive is a source of immense frustration. It also fuels a sense of dispossession and injustice that echoes throughout the region and is cited as a pretext for extremist militancy.
Our close acquaintance with the situation convinces us that real opportunities for positive change lie beneath the challenges. In this regard, we applaud the involvement of Arab States as a unifying force, encouraging reconciliation and pressing for the compromises that are necessary to achieve a just and lasting peace. Until this peace is achieved, we at UNRWA will press on with our role as a reliable partner for the Arab League, never flagging in our service to Palestine refugees.
(2) World Bank, March 07
(3) “Movement and Access Restrictions in the West Bank: Uncertainty and Inefficiency in the Palestinian Economy,
(4) Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966
(5) Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, 18 June 2007
(6) Advance Unedited Version, dated 12 June, 2007