Without significantly more resources, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) would not be able to continue its work and deliver the quality of basic services that refugees were entitled to, said UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen Koning AbuZayd at a Headquarters press conference today.
Speaking to journalists before delivering her annual address to the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee, and noting that the Assembly approves the work programme of the UNRWA, Ms. AbuZayd expressed the hope that, this year, Member States would back a three-year extension of the UNRWA mandate, increased funding for the agency, and the creation of 10 new posts for the current biennium.
“Considering the scale of our responsibilities under normal circumstances and the additional burdens we are bearing at present in several fields, we believe our request is modest and entirely justified”, she said.
She said that UNRWA assists about 4.5 million people in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. Among the “additional burdens” being placed on the Agency were the negative repercussions of recent punitive measures taken by Israel, in particular, the tightening of restrictions on movement and access into and out of the Gaza strip.
Those restrictions were increasing humanitarian distress levels in the region and diminishing supplies of much-needed food, drugs and other medicines, she said. She gave examples of their effects, among them a 71 per cent decrease in goods going into the Gaza strip since May -- 253 trucks per day entering the region in May, compared with 74 trucks per day currently. There was now zero stock in 91 different drugs, she added, compared to zero stock in 61 types of drugs just last month. There were also reports that primary health care clinics were out of paediatric antibiotics and there was a shortage of chronic disease drugs.
In terms of nutrition, Ms. AbuZayd said that 80 per cent of the population in Gaza was now living on World Food Programme or UNRWA rations. “It’s very basic rations of flour, oil, sugar, and a bit of lentils and powdered milk. It’s not good enough,” she said. “UNRWA rations, in fact, only give 61 per cent of the day’s nutritional value.”
“Something needs to be done to make up for these decreasing supplies and the continually decreasing economy of Gaza”, she continued. Increased donations from Member States and an increase in funds coming from the United Nations regular budget were necessary to help UNRWA assist the populations in need.
The Agency was currently operating with a budget deficit of more than $90 million and the deficit was expected to be $112 million next year.
She noted that financing for the Agency comes from various sources. Five per cent of its income comes from the United Nations regular budget, and is used to cover staffing costs. Funding from major humanitarian donors, such as the United States, the European Union, and the Scandinavian countries, was helping UNRWA to cover basic services, like primary healthcare, primary education and basic social services.
Meanwhile, Arab States such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were donating funds to help cover the costs of some infrastructure projects to improve the living conditions in refugee camps. Those States were increasing their funding for more general services as well.
“It’s the additional things which we don’t consider luxuries -- we consider them necessities -- that are creating this large deficit over the last couple of years”, she said. Improving the deteriorating conditions of the refugee camps was a major part of what was not being funded.
For its part, Ms. AbuZayd said, the UNRWA needed to improve its management capacity to plan, monitor and evaluate its work, and to improve its fundraising capabilities and its ability to explain its work to the rest of the world. Those improvements were at the heart of UNRWA’s current organizational development plan.
Asked about the rebuilding of the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp, Ms. AbuZayd said everyone was working as fast as possible but that rebuilding could take a few years. In the meantime, UNRWA had built new temporary housing and was providing rental subsidies to refugees. They had launched a $55 million appeal for those efforts and already $20 million had been pledged.
The Commissioner-General was also asked about the impact of recently released video footage which seemed to show rockets being launched from an UNRWA school in Gaza. She said violations of UNRWA installations had happened in the past and her Agency had complained many times to both sides about those incidents. She added, “I think the powers in Gaza right now will try to do something. They are willing to try to protect the UNRWA installations. They know they need to protect our presence in Gaza.”
In closing, Ms. AbuZayd said she looked forward to the upcoming conference in Annapolis, Maryland, as an event which could perhaps move the whole process forward and provide relief to the refugee population which was “shattered, generally, about what’s going on and losing any hope for the future and for their children”.
The current situation, especially in the Gaza strip, was not moving the region closer to peace. “We’re losing the fight to those who are on the extreme end of the groups in Gaza”, she said. “They’re the ones that are benefiting from this isolation and this continual squeeze on Gaza and its economy and on the people of Gaza.”