Excellencies, distinguished delegates,
It is a pleasure to present my Annual Report to the General Assembly on the work of UNRWA for Palestine Refugees in the Middle East. As per established practice, while the written report before you describes trends and events in 2019, my presentation will update you on the current situation.
I took up my function as Commissioner-General on April 1st, just after UNRWA launched a rapid and far-reaching response to prevent the spread of COVID-19 whilst at the same time maintaining the Agency’s education, health and relief services to millions of Palestine refugees, including in the 58 densely populated camps in the region.
The agility and ability of UNRWA to adjust the way it operates in response to COVID-19 almost overnight truly impressed me: UNRWA staff shifted to telemedicine, to home delivery of emergency food and medicine, and to distance learning.
Today, six months into my tenure and into the pandemic, our priority is still to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while ensuring that our critical services continue uninterrupted.
This is even more important now that a second wave is aggressively spreading in all communities, host and refugee alike. Between July and today the total number of Palestine refugees infected has surged from less than 200 cases to more than 10,000 last week. Beyond the health crisis, COVID-19 is also unleashing a brutal pandemic of abject poverty that is making Palestine refugees feel hopeless.
The last few weeks have brought new political developments in the region. The Secretary-General welcomed the agreement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and the suspension of annexation.
These regional developments are happening while Palestine refugees in the occupied Palestinian territory suffer from the blockade and unlivable conditions in Gaza, and experience hardships and restrictions on their freedom of movement in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The devastating conflict in Syria has not ended, Lebanon is plunged in its worst crisis in decades and Jordan is slipping into an acute economic crisis. Palestine refugees live in all these places and are not spared.
For many of them, the changing regional dynamics are a source of uncertainty and distress. They need reassurance. They need a reminder that the mandate of UNRWA and the status, rights and wellbeing of Palestine refugees remain unchanged, despite the political developments that they see around them.
A deep sense of abandonment and despair has permeated many recent discussions I have had with young Palestine refugees. I hear about a renewed rush towards migration boats across the Mediterranean that regularly end tragically. My teams also report an increased prevalence of child labour, of child marriage, and of families who say they survive on one meal or even no meal every day.
Despair and loss of hope make a dangerous cocktail in a highly volatile region, particularly for the youth, who feel increasingly disenfranchised and trapped.
Despair is a threat to peace and stability.
Addressing this requires a predictable and stable UNRWA that contributes to maintaining a sense of normality, if only through the consistent delivery of critical services. Health and education are fundamental human rights and basic pillars of living a dignified life. These are amongst UNRWA’s flagship programmes.
But rising poverty is leading a growing number of refugees to rely solely on UNRWA services. They ask us to do more at a time when we do not know whether we will be able to sustain our core services from one month to another.
Maintaining quality services requires adequate resources. It gives me no pleasure to turn now to UNRWA’s finances and inform you that they are still not in good shape.
I will focus first on our core Programme Budget, which is the backbone of the Agency. UNRWA’s funding gap today is $130 million dollars.
In addition to our core Programme Budget we are also appealing for support for our COVID-19 response. This support is critical to adequately protect our health staff during the pandemic, so that they can maintain lifesaving primary health care, including vaccinations, and maternal and child health care. Additional funds are also urgently needed to sustain a blended approach to education and to address the severe socioeconomic impact of COVID-19. We recently launched an appeal for 95 million USD and I hereby call on UN Member States to make funding available as generously as they did to our earlier COVID-19 appeal.
UNRWA also needs 40 million USD to sustain its humanitarian operations, including food and cash assistance to over 1.4 million conflict affected refugees coming from Syria or living in the occupied Palestinian territory. Today, 15 million USD of this amount is urgently required to sustain the food pipeline in Gaza for over 1 million refugees.
My priority now is to raise the necessary funds to sustain all our essential services. Failing to raise the necessary funds will impact both the salaries of 28,000 staff and the delivery of critical services, including the schooling of more than half a million girls and boys. Such a situation will force me to revert back to you for advice on which parts of the UNRWA mandate to prioritize.
Together, we can avoid this.
One of my objectives in this briefing today is to engage you, as Members of the General Assembly, and seek your full support to make resources for our Programme Budget more predictable and at a level that matches the responsibilities you entrusted to UNRWA through its Mandate, which was extended in December 2019.
UNRWA Programme Budget expenditures are predictable. But funding has constantly been unpredictable, with no visibility beyond a few weeks. This is unsustainable.
Unpredictable funding results in constant cash flow crises and structural under-funding. This is happening despite major efforts by UNRWA to keep expenditure under control by introducing efficiency and, at times, austerity measures. So far, UNRWA has minimized the adverse effects of austerity on the quality of its services to a remarkable extent, but there is a limit to what the Agency can do.
The constant cash flow crisis and structural underfunding are unsettling for Palestine refugees, for UNRWA staff and for host governments. This adds a layer of insecurity in an already volatile region.
The Agency and its partners are spending far too much time and energy on managing the financial crisis. The good news is: it is avoidable.
Over the last few months, I have engaged hosts and donors at high levels and encouraged a forward-looking and strategic approach that places the Agency on a reasonably sound footing to deliver effectively on its mandate.
To achieve this, there should be an agreement by Member States to provide the level of resources required to support the implementation of the UNRWA mandate in full and to increase the predictability of resources through multi-year financing. In turn, I am committed to developing and submitting a longer-term strategy for UNRWA, with a multi-year budget. I will also continue efforts to broaden the Agency’s donor base, and to explore partnerships and innovative funding avenues, in line with the UN Secretary-General’s 2017 report on UNRWA financing.
At the same time, the Agency will continue to strive for the highest standards of effectiveness, transparency and accountability, including through the management initiatives being rolled out. We have already reinforced the role of the Advisory Commission, the Agency’s internal oversight functions, the management decision making and the Agency’s regulatory framework, in particular in the area of recruitment and selection processes. Observing the humanitarian principles will equally remain a priority and we have already stepped up our efforts to uphold neutrality across our fields of operations.
Last year, the resolution of the General Assembly on the Assistance to Palestine refugees affirmed the necessity for the continuation of the work of UNRWA and – I quote – “the importance of its unimpeded operation and its provision of services, including emergency assistance, for the well-being, protection and human development of the Palestine refugees and for the stability of the region, pending the just resolution of the question of the Palestine refugees.”
Your diplomatic engagement is indispensable to guarantee a predictable UNRWA, to ensure that no Palestine refugee is left behind and to advance
the development and stability of the region.
We owe this to the Palestine refugees. We owe it to the region.
Thank you, Mr. Chair