oPt + 3 more

Statement of UNRWA Commissioner-General, to the Advisory Commission, 19 November 2018

Dead Sea, 19 November 2018

Mr. Chair,

Mr. Vice-Chair,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a very special pleasure to be here with the distinguished members of the Advisory Commission, under the Chairmanship of Ambassador Korkut Güngen – thank you very much for your engagement Excellency, your Government’s support for UNRWA, including through the Commission, has been outstanding and your participation in this meeting is greatly appreciated. Mr. Samer Khasawneh – as Acting Director General of Department of Palestinian Affairs (DPA) of Jordan it is a pleasure to acknowledge your important role as Vice Chair.

The hospitality of the Government of Jordan in facilitating meetings of the Advisory Commission is most appreciated. I also want to thank Ambassador Al-Lozi for his presence earlier this morning. Jordan’s support is indispensable to UNRWA and the Palestine refugees. Jordan – and all the hosts – continue to assume historic responsibilities for Palestine refugees.

Also present are the members of the bureau, and I would like to recognize with appreciation. The Chair of the Subcommittee, Mr. Jonathan Conlon - Head of Ireland’s Representative Office to Palestine; and the Vice Chairs, Mr. Samer Khasawneh, and Mr. Jason Tulk - Head of Canada’s Cooperation bureau in Ramallah.

And we are honored by the presence of four guests in this meeting; the Deputy Director-General for Planning of the Qatar Fund for Development; the Ambassador of Azerbaijan; the Ambassador of Malaysia and from the Embassy of China we have the Economic and Commercial Counselor. Our circle of friends and partners is growing; it is my sincere hope these relationships will be further strengthened.

Delegations here know just how dramatic this year has been for UNRWA and how sudden and unprecedented were the challenges to our work on the ground. At the very outset of my presentation, I wish to emphasize that we have addressed these challenges with great resolve and creativity.

We are on a path to overcoming the greatest financial predicament ever in the history of this Agency, and to a very large extent this has been possible because you - our partners - rose to the occasion. Your support has been truly remarkable.

Before turning to UNRWA, I would like to share some observations about the situation of Palestine refugees. I will limit myself to a few key points as we will be hearing later from our field directors and tomorrow from a programme panel.

In much of our operating area, humanitarian conditions – as you are well aware – have been grave and in many ways critical. Palestine refugees were deeply marked by the effects of ongoing conflict, exacerbated by the lack of political progress, the announcements on Jerusalem and pressures on UNRWA’s funding and operations. I can sincerely say there was an overwhelming sense of existential crisis among Palestine refugees.

In Syria, much of Yarmouk Camp lies in ruins following many rounds of heavy combat, years of siege and the presence and actions of armed groups. The latest battles ended in June destroying much of the remaining infrastructure. We have been in the Camp assessing the situation. Our 23 facilities are heavily damaged, so we are grappling with the dilemma of restoring services in an uncertain environment. The situation is similar in other heavily damaged camps, including Ein El Tal and Deraa.

At the same time there are flickers of hope. We are resuming work in other areas including Sbeineh Camp, with close coordination and support from government authorities and in particular GAPAR. The camp was emptied years ago, and displaced residents are returning.

In July I inaugurated a school, a dignified, safe space in a camp in urgent need of recovery. Along with our clinic and service office, UNRWA is present once again, and it is stabilizing, as hopes grow that Syria may begin its transition into post-conflict rehabilitation in the months ahead.

In Gaza, the worst medical emergency in decades is playing itself out, with our medical staff in a pivotal role in the response. Since March, protests along the border with Israel have resulted in severe injuries on a mass scale – exceeding the numbers injured during the 2014 war.

The public medical system – already collapsing – has been overwhelmed. So our health centers have supported thousands of injured and our family health doctors and nurses, who don’t ordinarily treat battlefield injuries, have had to deal with situations far beyond their traditional practice.

In the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem, protecting refugees is a challenge all its own. Our teams face very difficult situations and yet have shown immense creativity. Last year, I informed you that residents of Aida Camp suffer extreme exposure to tear gas especially during incursions – levels not seen anywhere on the planet, as reported by a team of international experts with our facilitation.

For years, children in the heart of the camp have been kept indoors, by parents gravely concerned about mortal risks, and other severe consequences, of tear gas. Our protection dialogue with Israeli Security Forces has led to a significant improvement over the past twelve months, in terms of the pattern of tear gas use.

Confronted with the all-pervasive effects of the occupation, Palestine refugees in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, have in UNRWA, the only consistent and dedicated service provider concerned about the preservation of their well-being and dignity.

Ladies and gentlemen,

While carrying out our intensive activities on the ground we remain very focused on multiple institutional priorities. Among them – I want to emphasize one in particular – is a renewed effort to combat sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as other forms of sexual misconduct. The global aid community has been shaken by recent acts against beneficiaries, which are abhorrent, fundamentally contrary to the core values of the United Nations, and will not be overlooked or tolerated in UNRWA under any circumstances.

Secretary-General Guterres has recommitted the entire UN system to eliminating sexual exploitation and abuse – I am ensuring together with my colleagues, that UNRWA sets the highest possible standard. I have communicated robustly to all our staff on this issue, and a dedicated task force is updating and strengthening policies and practices. The Director of Legal Affairs will provide an update tomorrow.

We are enhancing awareness and tools to ensure staff fulfil their duty to report any act of exploitation or harassment, in confidence and without fear of retaliation. We are raising beneficiary awareness also and systems that encourage them to report any such acts.

As we will be strengthen reporting and investigations, we can expect an increase in the Agency’s caseload, which would actually be a positive step.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In this very difficult context, with refugee needs and vulnerabilities at the highest level UNRWA has seen in decades, the Agency was forced to contend with a massive shock. In January of this year $300 million in funding was cut, following an abrupt decision by our largest single donor to scale down its support to $60 million in 2018. The United States has since announced that it will not contribute any funds as of 2019.

I have said it before and I wish to repeat it here: while recognizing that funding a humanitarian organization remains a sovereign decision and underlining how generous and consistent the US’ support to UNRWA has been over decades, I obviously regret the decision to end its funding precisely because it had been such an important partnership.

The resulting financial crisis has been unprecedented; as of mid-January we recorded – and you are very aware of the figures – a shortfall of $446 million, truly staggering amount for an agency that provides essential services on which millions rely every day, in unstable environments and with no viable alternatives.

Coming face to face with a suspension of operations on a large scale – including education, health-care relief and social services and emergency aid – has been exceptionally difficult for the Agency, given the responsibilities we carry on your behalf to assist and protect the refugees, and the tensions felt by 30,000 staff serving in highly polarized settings.

However, we were determined not to sit back and complain, and we launched a global campaign called #DignityIsPriceless, bringing about a renewed spirit of multilateral cooperation. The collective mobilization was deeper and broader than we’ve seen in decades, accompanied by diplomatic engagement at the highest levels.

Two ministerial meetings were key in mobilizing support, with $100 million pledged in Rome on 15 March and $122 million in New York on 27 September. In this regard, Jordan’s diplomatic energy, as co-Chair of both meetings and Host to the largest number of registered Palestine refugees, is duly recognized. I have the highest appreciation for Foreign Minister Safadi for engaging every step of the way. I wish to thank Sweden, Egypt, Turkey, Japan, Germany and the European Union for their important co-Chair roles as well.

Today, I am very pleased to announce that, overall since January, donors contributed or pledged an additional $425 million, bringing our shortfall down to $21 million.

This is a truly extraordinary result, including in what it says about the international community’s efforts to enable fulfillment of the mandate given to us by the General Assembly. We are doing our part to preserve effectiveness of the multilateral aid system.

Throughout the year the Secretary-General has stood with UNRWA; I pay tribute to him for the extraordinary outreach. I also wish to express deep appreciation for the EU’s High Representative, and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, and of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, for their roles in the positive results achieved.

The European Union and its member states have responded remarkably and provided extensive additional support. Each and every one of the members deserves recognition. In addition I wish to include here acknowledgment for Japan, Norway, Canada and Switzerland, supporting us in determined fashion.

Four of our Arab partners showed true humanitarian leadership; Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait raised $50 million each. They account for 50% of the additional sum pledged this year. Led by Saudi Arabia, our Arab partners have been among the most generous donors in recent years, also focusing on infrastructure and emergency appeals. Sustaining this year’s performance is indispensable to our operational stability moving forward.

We look forward to welcoming Qatar as a full new Advisory Commission Member from 2019 onwards.

Over the past twelve months, 40 (four zero) countries and institutions increased their contributions to UNRWA, from every regional grouping of the UN General Assembly.

Our Host governments took action, one of them increasing direct support by the largest magnitude of any donor.

This year, we also count 10 Asian Member States either as new donors, or as existing partners who are giving up to 10 times more to UNRWA. Among them are the guests participating in this meeting.

Support from BRICS governments has more than doubled in 2018, inspired by the example of Brazil.

Three permanent members of the Security Council are stepping up generous support by a wide margin.

Two Latin American governments doubled their support for UNRWA.

Emerging donors from Eastern Europe are a welcome component of this increase as well.

Finance Director Shadi El-Abed and Acting Direvtor of External Relations, Matthias Burchard, will provide more details but let me make 2 additional points:

First, a call to those donors who have pledged but not yet disbursed to do so urgently; Second, as we head into 2019 I wish to appeal to all our supporters to preserve this successful response of 2018. In that regard I also hope to see progress come to a conclusion in establishing for UNRWA a World Bank Trust F.nd and an Islamic Development Bank “Waqf”. It is very important that we finalize and move these forward.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I continue to say without hesitation that UNRWA has responsibilities in the collective effort to achieve financial health. One of the responsibilities, which I know is a priority for our closest stakeholders, is efficiency and financial discipline, which we exercise. It is a priority for me, my Deputy Sandra Mitchell and the management team. We are an operational agency reliant on voluntary funding, so we put this priority into practice every day in our planning, management and delivery. And you now that it would not be conceivable to come to you this year and ask for more without taking ore actions on my side.

For example, our shortfall this year of $446 million would have reached $538 million, if not for rigid cost controls applied to our 2018 budget and expenditure. I assure you that stripping out $92 million was not an easy task. I have also reported to the Secretary-General that between 2015-2017 we fast-tracked difficult reforms, enforced austerity Agency-wide, and saved $197 million over that period. At the same time, refugee needs were rising, so were operating costs, but we avoided service cuts. I can think of no other humanitarian organization doing the same in those circumstances.

I very much appreciate the recognition of stakeholders, notably major donors, for efficiencies we have achieved and the value of our continuing efforts in that regard. You can count on my steadfast determination in the future as well.

I would now like to turn briefly from financial issues to institutional issues that continue preoccupying UNRWA and its stakeholders. I take this opportunity to further clarify them for the Commission.

Increasingly, a number of assertions about Palestine refugees have been raised in the media and various political forums. Stakeholders have also raised them during my visits to some of your capitals, and in the region. And I have valued and continue to value the opportunity to discuss and address questions, concerns and criticisms.

One of the assertions is that only UNRWA registers the children and grandchildren of refugees and their descendants, in contrast – it is said – to UNHCR. And we are at times described as (I quote) “inflating” (end of quote) the number of Palestine refugees.

Ladies and gentlemen, these are simply straighforward misrepresentations. There is sadly nothing unique about the protracted nature of the Palestine refugee situation, giving rise to successive generations who remain displaced.

The fact is, children born to refugees, and their descendants, are recognized as refugees by UNRWA and UNHCR under their respective mandates. Refugees from places like Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, and Congo, have been displaced for decades and, naturally, continued to raise families in the countries hosting them. Their descendants were recognized as refugees and assisted as such by UNHCR, until lasting solutions are found.

UNRWA is also described as (I quote) “perpetuating” (end of quote) the Palestine refugee question, by calling – this is the assertion – for a return to their place of origin. UNHCR is presented, by contrast, as finding solutions by resettling refugees in third countries.

Let me be clear on this point: UNHCR has a mandate to seek solutions, whether through a return of refugees or resettlement; UNRWA does not have such a mandate. The preferred solution for all refugees under international law is voluntary return, in safety and dignity, a position taken by the international community for over six decades.

In this context, allow me to draw your attention to the note entitled, “Protection of Palestine Refugees,” which was approved by the Secretary-General of the UN, will be made available to you.

What I find disturbing is the notion that Palestine refugees are a “problem”, or an “obstacle”, in the search for Middle East peace, as if they are responsible for the unresolved conflict, or can be disregarded. We are talking about a community of people, men, women and children, who have experienced extremes of violence, suffering, and injustice.

No matter how often attempts are made to minimize or delegitimize individual and collective experiences of Palestine refugees, the undeniable fact remains that they have rights under international law and cannot simply be wished away.

The responsibility for the continuing situation and conflict lies squarely with the parties and in the international community’s lack of will or utter inability to bring about a negotiated and peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

This brings me to another topic of common interest and concern – the Agency’s ongoing commitment to neutrality and challenges we are addressing in this field. There can be no doubting how seriously we take neutrality. Neutrality is embraced by us as an action-oriented principle, which is crucial to preserve access, trust and credibility in highly polarized environments.

Among the challenges are this year’s financial crisis which affected capacity in some neutrality functions. We are making internal arrangements to ensure resources focus on critical areas. The Great Marches to the Gaza border posed another challenge, particularly in the social media sphere, as heavy loss of life and number of injuries sparked widespread outrage. So far we have not discovered, nor seen allegations of, social media violations by our staff in this relation – a testament to the dedication of our staff to UNRWA’s mission, but also to the effectiveness of our neutrality training,

We will continue being vigilant, of course; should there be other challenges of this kind we will not hesitate to take action again.

Given the exceptional challenges UNRWA grapples with daily, the risk it takes to sustain – with success – its humanitarian mission on behalf of the international community, I also ask the members of the Advisory Commission to ensure that our work is not politicized. Your support, individually and collectively, in preserving the independent, humanitarian character of UNRWA is indispensable, as we continue operating in some of the world’s most polarized environments.

Mr. Chairman


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Inevitably, in reports about humanitarian crises, there is a tendency to focus on the trauma, the pain and the criticality of needs. In the situation of Palestine refugees this is compounded by the number of decades since their original displacement.

And while there is no doubting or overlooking the pain, there is also much strength, creativity and positive energy in the refugee community. And I say to you, as members of the Advisory Commission, that our operations remain as important as they were when we began. I say it not out of a sense of despair but out of a deep belief that we have together contributed to one of the most successful human development processes for a refugee community in recent history, including major steps in the direction of attaining vital Sustainable Development Goals.

When, thanks to the contributions of many Member States this year, of you in this room, we were able to open the 711 UNRWA schools on time, it was a moment of pure and simple celebration. We celebrated the preservation of the right to education for 530,000 girls and boys, from Aleppo to Rafah in the Gaza Strip. We celebrated the level of education delivered in our schools despite the immense financial pressures. But we also celebrated the relevance of our partnerships with you in preserving our school system.

Having worked for many years in conflict zones, I am deeply familiar with the fact that wars destroy infrastructure and institutions vital to the stability of nations and their ability to recover post-war. UNRWA’s schools, I mentioned 711 schools, our clinics – 140 of them – and hundreds of other installations are part of a vital institutional backbone, providing invaluable services and regional stability, fostering conditions that support the international community’s and our search for peace.

Furthermore, experience also tells us that a vital component of that search for peace is to help the parties rediscover the humanity in the “Other”. It is my conviction that the international community’s assistance to both communities in the Middle East conflict is necessary.

UNRWA draws inspiration from the humanity it sees every day in the refugee community and youth in our schools in particular. This generation is absolutely determined to rise above adversity that surrounds them, to succeed in their education and to lead a life of dignity, a life in which the rights of all peoples are respected.

When two UNRWA students, Aseel – a Palestine refugee girl from Lebanon – and Ahmad, - a Palestine refugee student from Jordan who you will be meeting tomorrow – accompanied me to the High-Level week of the General Assembly in September, they addressed several fora, stating that they want to be recognized for their skills and desire to contribute to global solutions.

This is why UNRWA is here. Why we are committed, with dynamism and energy, to helping this generation in search of dignity. And I believe the effort is worth it a million times over, and thank you once again, our partners, for your solidarity and trust in making that possible.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION UNRWA is confronted with an increased demand for services resulting from a growth in the number of registered Palestine refugees, the extent of their vulnerability and their deepening poverty. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions and financial support has been outpaced by the growth in needs. As a result, the UNRWA programme budget, which supports the delivery of core essential services, operates with a large shortfall. UNRWA encourages all Member States to work collectively to exert all possible efforts to fully fund the Agency’s programme budget. UNRWA emergency programmes and key projects, also operating with large shortfalls, are funded through separate funding portals.

UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5.4 million Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA across its five fields of operation. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, protection and microfinance.

For more information, please contact:

Christopher Gunness
Spokesperson, Director of Advocacy & Strategic Communications
+972 (0)54 240 2659
+972 (0)2 589 0267

Sami Mshasha
Chief of Communications, Arabic Language Spokesperson
+972 (0)54 216 8295
+972 (0)258 90724