18 September 2009
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Head of Palestinian Refugee Agency on Its Anniversary Events


Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Karen Koning AbuZayd, today announced a week-long series of events in New York to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Agency’s creation, which would culminate with an “UNRWA @ 60” ministerial-level event on 24 September.


Speaking at a Headquarters press conference, Ms. AbuZayd said that, during the commemoration, Governments would pay tribute to the six decades of the Agency’s achievements and service to the world’s largest and longest-standing refugee population.  The ministerial segment would be followed by two panel discussions, where Ms. AbuZayd would be joined by other high-level officials.  Participating in the anniversary would be two former heads of UNRWA.


The commemoration was a tribute, not only to the Agency, but also to the refugees themselves and what they had achieved over the past 60 years, “despite being refugees for such a long time and under occupation for 40 of those 60 years”, she said.  Also planned were academic conferences at Columbia University and the Princeton Club on UNRWA’s humanitarian role in current peace efforts and an assessment of the Agency’s contribution to human capital in the Middle East.  UNRWA had also published a commemorative book, which contains 85 entries from around the world, in tribute to its work.


During a breakfast event next Thursday, a banner would be unveiled inside the Delegates Lounge and outside the Secretariat Building with the slogan “Peace Starts Here”, surrounded by dozens of smiling children’s faces.  “We have to look at the youth and what we can do for them, how we can help them look forward to the future,” she said in that connection.


UNRWA provides education to half a million children in approximately 650 schools across the Middle East and maintains 138 health centers in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, she explained.  It also runs extensive relief, social services and microfinance programmes in the region.


Drawing attention to the Agency’s funding problems, she said those were “perhaps more serious this year than ever”, mainly because they were affecting UNRWA’s general fund, from which its basic programmes to promote human development and self-reliance of refugees, as well as health, education and social efforts were funded.  That subject would be raised during bilateral talks with many participants in the event next week.


Responding to several questions about the Agency’s financial situation, she said that by the end of this year, UNRWA would have difficulties paying the salaries of some 29,000 staff, facing a deficit of some $17 million.  She had written letters to all the countries that had ever donated to UNRWA, asking them “if they wouldn’t like to make a special pledge this year, particularly as it’s our sixtieth anniversary and we are having a particular problem this year”.  The Agency had already spent its working capital over the past years, due mainly to salary increases, which were introduced in an effort to match UNRWA employees’ pay to that of the civil servants in the countries in which they worked.


The Agency expected increased contributions from Governments, because “we have more refugees each year, we have more expenses, we build more classrooms, and we need more teachers”.  However, against the backdrop of the current financial crisis, some Governments had not increased their pledges.


A $181 million appeal had been recently issued for Gaza, she said.  That amount would cover what had not yet been raised in the previous $345 million appeal for Gaza reconstruction.


Answering a question about the most vivid memories of her nine years at UNRWA, she recalled a little old lady, whose house had been razed by Israeli bulldozers, had still wanted Ms. AbuZayd “to see that she was pretty tough, looking for whatever she could find in the rubble”.  Now, after a year-and-a-half siege of Gaza, one could still see the Palestinians adapting and trying to make the best of things, trying to make life as normal as possible for their children.  It was painful, “but also sweet somehow”, to see the refugees rebound from crisis.


Asked about the prospects of UNRWA dissolution, once the refugee problem was solved, she said that she shared the feelings of many of realism, optimism and “sometimes hopelessness and despair”.  There were glimpses of hope, particularly in view of the United States Administration taking a stronger lead and wanting to adopt a balanced approach to the Palestinian-Israeli issue.  The Palestinians themselves were also taking steps to build institutions that would be part of the State.  Many refugees were worried, however;  they had initially expected the issue to be resolved within their lifetime, but they were now hoping that their children would see a resolution.  Personally, she could not wish for anything more than to see the end of “the refugeehood”, which -– being one of the final status issues -- would also mean the success of the peace process.


Asked about the outcome of the work of the Fact Finding Mission, which had been established by the Human Rights Council, she said she was glad the report had concluded that there were certainly no militants at UNRWA schools, as the Agency had maintained all along.  She looked forward to the official presentation of the report to the Human Rights Council.


To a question about compensation from Israel for the damages incurred by UNRWA structures in Gaza, she recalled the Secretary-General’s statement in July that he had indications from the Israelis that they were willing to pay such compensation.  The Agency had recently brought in an outside professional to make sure that its earlier estimates were correct, and he found them to be quite conservative.  That information had been provided to the Israelis just before everybody went on vacation in August.  She expected the issue to be discussed with the Office of Legal Affairs and the Secretary-General’s Office, which were handling the matter.


Asked about the Agency’s succession plans following her retirement in December, Ms. AbuZayd said the Secretary-General had already canvassed all Member States for nominations.  One of the names presented was UNRWA’s Deputy Commissioner-General, Filippo Grandi, who had been in charge of many important programmes over the years.  The United States was expected to reclaim the Deputy Commissioner-General position.  Interviews were expected to be held shortly.


To a question about possible Hamas affiliation with UNRWA teachers in Gaza, she said that the Agency did not question its employees about their affiliation when recruiting them.  All recruited staff passed through local authorities, and related information was shared with the Israeli Government, as well.


* *** *


For information media • not an official record