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Press conference by chief of United Nations Relief Agency for Palestine Refugees

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The head of the United Nations Relief Agency for Palestine Refugees today praised Brazil and India for recently increasing their financial aid to the Agency’s operations and called on other emerging economic powerhouses to follow suit.

“We hope that other countries will step up to the plate and share the burden of this effort, which is important for the stability of the region and beyond, and more than anything else for the almost 5 million people that deserve attention,” 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.

Funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions, UNRWA provides socio-economic and humanitarian assistance, 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. Of its 2012 core programme budget of $600 million to mainly run schools and clinics, as well as to provide emergency economic relief to the poorest refugees, the Agency had received about $525 million, said Mr. Grandi.

Wealthy Western nations had traditionally provided the lion’s share of UNRWA’s core programme budget and emergency appeals, but other countries with strategic interests and involvement in the Middle East had, of late, dug deeper into their pockets in a bid to scale up the financially strapped Agency, he said. Brazil, South America’s largest economy, had made significant contributions in the last two years and it had just pledged another $7.5 million for UNRWA’s operations in Gaza, and he planned to meet with Brazilian Government officials in June to advocate for that support to become “more predictable and permanent”.

He said India had also become a regular donor in the last few years, while the Islamic Development Bank and several Arab countries, notably Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia — UNRWA’s third largest donor in 2011 — had bolstered their funding to the Agency, particularly for reconstruction projects in Gaza. He hoped that China, which had provided strong political support to UNRWA’s mandate and operations through the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) and Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary), would match that with greater financial backing.

Such support was vital, given the increased reliance on UNRWA’s services for the 1.6 million Palestinians living in Gaza since the Israeli Government had imposed a blockade on that enclave in 2007, he said. Despite the easing of restrictions on imports of construction materials in 2010, UNRWA still faced formidable challenges to providing basic services and rebuilding schools and homes that had been destroyed during Israel’s military incursion in Gaza in 2008 and 2009.

Since mid-2011, Israeli officials had denied all of UNRWA’s requests to implement construction projects, he said, imploring them to reverse that policy as well as expedite procedures for bringing the necessary building materials into Gaza. Ensuring the refugees’ survival and well-being, he stressed, must remain at the forefront. “We fully understand the complexity of the political and the security situation, but our appeal is for humanitarian needs and humanitarian responses not to be held hostage by politics,” he said, adding that “people need to have houses and children need to go to school”.

Turning to the situation in Lebanon, Mr. Grandi said the Agency hoped to complete by 2013 reconstruction of the Nahr el-Bared camp, which had housed approximately 30,000 Palestinian refugees before it was badly damaged during violent attacks in 2007, forcing people into temporary shelters throughout northern Lebanon. Last year, displaced families had begun returning to the camp. He expected about half of its original residents to return by early 2013. Lamenting the delays in rebuilding the camp and praising a March report of the International Crisis Group on that subject, he noted that UNRWA had received just half of the $300 million needed for reconstruction. He appealed for greater funding to expedite the process.

He said he had met with Lebanon’s Prime Minister last month to press upon him the need to implement without delay the legislative reforms adopted in 2010 in the Lebanese Parliament to expand the rights of Palestine refugees to work in Lebanon. Allowing the Palestinians to work, own property and tap into Lebanon’s social services would greatly alleviate their socio-economic hardship and reliance on outside humanitarian aid, without jeopardizing their rights as refugees.

Turning to Syria, where almost 500,000 Palestinian refugees lived in nine official and three unofficial UNRWA-run camps, he implored the Government to continue its traditionally strong support for the Agency and expressed hope that Palestinian refugees would continue to enjoy a neutral status and not be drawn into that country’s current political crossfire.

Responding to reporters’ questions about UNRWA’s operations in Syria, he said Palestinian refugees had not taken part in the fighting in Syria nor had significant numbers of them been displaced. For safety reasons, UNRWA had removed a few members of its staff, which included 3,000 Palestinians and international personnel, but it still maintained a large presence in Syria, and its operations were still up and running. UNRWA’s schools and clinics in Der’a, in southern Syria, which had been closed last year amid intense fighting, had reopened, he said. Students were also gradually returning to class in Homs, the nation’s third-largest city, where operations had been partially suspended in recent months.

Asked to comment on recent protests in Gaza over budget cuts to UNRWA programmes, he said the protests were legitimate. As Gaza was now competing for donors’ attention with other pressing political crises in the Arab region, the Agency had been forced to slightly reduce emergency food and cash handouts, while it looked for new funding sources. “Nobody should forget that Gaza still has humanitarian needs,” he said. By 2020 there would be some 1.5 million Palestinian refugee youth. “That’s not a population that you can simply ignore, even in context of the Arab Spring.”

Concerning South Africa’s backing of UNRWA, he said that that country’s support, and that of other donors, was not just monetary, but also political, moral and advisory. Although not a huge contributor, South Africa had contributed annually to UNRWA and it had a long tradition of dialogue and cooperation with the Agency. During the 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, donors had announced $1.2 million in funding to build Gaza’s first “green schools”, he added.

Asked about a successor for John Ging, who in 2011 had stepped down as Director of UNRWA’s Gaza operations, Mr. Grandi said the Agency had made interim arrangements to carry out his functions and that a successor would be appointed soon.

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