Head of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East Airs ‘Crippling’ Financial Woes
With conflicts expanding in the Middle East, thrusting one community after another into extreme insecurity, Palestine refugees remained among the most marginalized due to Israel’s ongoing occupation and the absence of sustainable, predictable funding, the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) heard today as it took up the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
“Palestine refugees today feel further than ever ‘left behind’,” Pierre Krähenbühl, UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, said as he addressed the Committee. The vulnerability and isolation of the refugees had intensified, and broader gains in social and economic development across the region were very much at risk. In addition, the Sustainable Development Goals recently adopted by the international community were an aspiration “beyond the foreseeable horizon” of the Palestine refugees as long as they remained casualties of the unresolved conflict that had violated their fundamental human rights for more than six decades.
He went on to describe a financial crisis which, in 2014, had affected the Agency’s varied projects, including its flagship education programme. Providing education for some 500,000 Palestinian refugee children and vocational training for 7,000 youth, the programme had been under threat of indefinite suspension due to the lack of funding. Faced with that crippling funding shortfall, UNRWA’s management had had no choice but to “grasp the nettle” and take urgent measures to close the gap by curtailing planned expenditure, he said.
Describing those events as a “very close call”, he said they were a “warning to all of us that we must now take serious steps […] to ensure that UNRWA is put on a more sustainable future financial basis”. The crisis had also been symptomatic of a broader existential crisis within the world’s humanitarian system, which could not cope with the escalating demands for humanitarian assistance. “Donor resources, though increasing, cannot keep pace with needs,” he emphasized. Indeed, there were now 60 million displaced persons in the world, including refugees, with conflicts — the principal source of displacement — lasting an average of 17 years. UNRWA cared for 44 per cent of the world’s long-term refugees, those who had been displaced for more than five years, he said.
Also addressing the Committee, Iselin Larsen (Norway), Rapporteur of the Working Group on the Financing of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, presented that body’s report. She said UNRWA’s funding gap had eventually been bridged with additional contributions from a number of Member States countries, and all Palestine refugee children had returned to school on time. She went on to urge Governments that had not yet done so to contribute regularly to the Agency, in particular to its General Fund, and called on those that had made relatively small contributions to raise their support levels. She emphasized that multi-year funding was needed to enable UNRWA to better plan its activities.
As the floor opened for the general debate, the Deputy Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine said the escalation of tensions witnessed today were manifestations of an injustice that had persisted for nearly seven decades, becoming “more inhumane, more tragic and more perilous” with time. Successive crises had deepened the vulnerability of Palestine refugees, and their identity and resilience had been at risk since. The current refugee and migrant crisis affecting the Middle East and Europe, which included Palestine refugees among the millions fleeing Syria, underscored the need for humane solutions based on international law and addressing root causes, she added.
Iran’s representative, speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, reaffirmed UNRWA’s mandate and essential role until a just and lasting solution to the plight of Palestine refugees was found, including their right of return and fair compensation on the basis of General Assembly resolution 194 (III). Facing existential threats, the refugees were “sinking deeper into poverty and desperation”, a situation exacerbated by the armed conflicts in Syria, he said.
A number of speakers underscored their financial backing for UNRWA’s work while calling for more sustainable and predictable sources of funding in the future. The European Union’s representative said the bloc’s member States remained the largest providers of international assistance to Palestine refugees, contributing almost half of all donor support to UNRWA. He urged the Agency to consider and implement initiatives that would secure a medium-term budget as well as financial stability, and to ensure that services were delivered to the most vulnerable among the refugee population.
Norway’s representative warned that the turbulent situation in the region could negatively affect UNRWA’s ability to respond to the needs of the refugee population. Echoing concerns that increasing demands and lack of resources also affected the Agency’s ability to provide basic services. The international community and donors had a responsibility to enable UNRWA to continue its work, he stressed, urging donors to support the Agency by providing predictable and adapted financial support, as well as political backing.
Also speaking were representatives of Saudi Arabia (on behalf of the Arab Group), Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Switzerland.
The Fourth Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 10 November, to conclude its general debate on UNRWA and take up a number of outstanding agenda items.
Before the Committee were the report of the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (document A/70/13) and its addendum (document A/70/13/Add.1); the report of the Working Group on the Financing of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (document A/70/379); a report of the Secretary-General on Palestine refugees’ properties and their revenues (document A/70/340); a report of the Secretary-General on persons displaced as a result of the June 1967 and subsequent hostilities (document A/70/308); and a note by the Secretary-General transmitting the report of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (document A/70/319).
PIERRE KRÄHENBÜHL, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), recalled that his address to the Committee a year ago had placed a strong focus on the destructive and deadly war in the Gaza Strip and its aftermath. Although generous pledges had been made at the Cairo donor conference that October, regrettably, “Palestine refugees today feel further than ever ‘left behind’,”, he said. Their vulnerability and isolation had intensified, and for many Palestinians already subjected to severe inequalities and discrimination, the present situation had created a new existential crisis whereby flight was a choice; some had joined the refugee exodus that was flowing into Europe. In the midst of those severe conditions, the gains in social and economic development in the broader Middle East, achieved over decades, was very much at risk. In addition, the new Sustainable Development Goals were an aspiration “beyond the foreseeable horizon” of the refugees, as long as they remained casualties of the unresolved conflict that had violated their fundamental human rights for more than six decades.
In the summer of 2014, he continued, UNRWA’s flagship education programme for some 500,000 Palestinian refugee children and some 7,000 youth in its vocational training programme, had been under threat of indefinite suspension due to a lack of financing. Faced with that crippling funding shortfall, the Agency’s management had had no choice but to “grasp the nettle” and take urgent measures to close the gap by curtailing planned expenditure. Bridging the shortfall had also required the active support of external stakeholders, and as a result, the required $101 million had been raised to enable UNRWA’s schools to reopen on time. Those events had been a “very close call”, he said, describing them as a “warning to all of us that we must now take serious steps […] to ensure that UNRWA is put on a more sustainable future financial basis”. He said that, in order to ensure sustainability, he had instructed his senior managers to prioritize activities linked directly to service delivery, and to ensure that support functions were streamlined and budgets compressed. That new approach was now driving the preparation of UNRWA’s 2016 budget, and the anticipated results were encouraging. The projected budget shortfall for 2016, initially estimated at $135 million, had been reduced to $81 million. However, even as the controls were tightened, additional resources would be necessary to bridge projected funding shortfalls. He therefore sought to develop new funding opportunities and needed the support of donors — the World Bank, for example — to open new funding portals for the Agency. Meanwhile, funding would still need to be underpinned by Member States, from whom UNRWA needed consolidated, predictable and multi-year funding commitments.
Describing the serious toll that the Syrian conflict and the 2014 Gaza war had taken on UNRWA’s education programmes, he emphasized that education remained the essential factor of hope and strength among Palestinian youth, who were so often deprived of opportunity and rights. In that sense, preserving their access to education remained an essential investment to prevent radicalization and keep open the prospect of a better future. In Gaza, where 1.3 million Palestinians resided in mostly dire conditions, the illegal blockade remained in place, subjecting Palestinians to collective punishment. Some 893,000 refugees were food-dependent, 11 times the number 15 years ago. Following the 2014 conflict, UNRWA was making enormous efforts to rehabilitate 140,750 Palestinian refugee homes impacted by the war. Some 15 years of serial armed conflict and eight years of blockade had decimated Gaza’s agriculture, small businesses and cottage industries, he said, adding that the United Nations projected that Gaza would not be liveable by 2020, unless the international community engaged all relevant parties decisively to lift the blockade and supported large-scale humanitarian and developmental activities.
In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the upsurge in violence and protests in recent weeks had had a direct impact on Palestinians, with 71 fatalities and more than 7,500 injuries reported since 1 October, he continued. UNRWA was shocked by the violence that had affected both Palestinian and Israeli civilians, the pattern of deadly force against Palestinians, the expansion of settlements, the increase in settler violence against Palestinian refugees, and the displacement of refugees by the demolition and destruction of structures. In Syria, where the conflict was approaching five years in duration, some 450,000 Palestinian refugees — 80 per cent of the pre-war total — remained in the country, almost all requiring UNRWA assistance to meet their basic needs. Meanwhile, the Agency estimated that 58,000 Palestinian refugees had fled to Lebanon and Jordan and 52,000 to locations outside UNRWA areas of operation, including to Europe, Asia and Latin America. Many had tragically lost their lives making the perilous crossing to Europe. UNRWA’s ability to provide emergency shelter, education and health services in situ, using its long established infrastructure, had undoubtedly played an important role in the decision of some families to remain in Syria, he said. It was therefore vital that to fund those emergency services at an adequate level. On present trends, just over half of UNRWA’s $420 million emergency appeal for 2015 would be met, he said, noting that, as winter approached, $124 million would be needed for emergency cash, shelter and winterization; $30 million for emergency food assistance; $17 million for emergency education; and $24 million for livelihoods.
He went on to describe the situation of Palestine refugees living in Lebanon and Jordan, calling particular attention to the reconstruction of the Nahr El Barad refugee camp, destroyed in 2007, which remained UNRWA’s single largest housing project. Rebuilding was continuing far too slowly due to a lack of donor funds, he said, adding that UNRWA’s financial crisis this summer was symptomatic of a broader existential crisis within the world’s humanitarian system which, simply put, could not cope with the escalating demands for humanitarian assistance. “Donor resources, though increasing, cannot keep pace with needs,” he said. Indeed, the world now had 60 million displaced persons, including refugees, with conflicts — the principal source of displacement — lasting an average of 17 years. UNRWA cared for 44 per cent of the world’s long-term refugees, those who had been displaced for more than five years. Addressing allegations of inappropriate statements by UNRWA staff, notably on social media, he said the Agency condemned any form of anti-Semitism or racism, and its position on that issue was a matter of public record. “We take every allegation seriously and, when credible, investigate it and will continue to take disciplinary actions as required,” he stressed.
The Chair then opened the floor for an interactive dialogue session.
The representative of Turkey said more international support for UNRWA was essential, noting that its most recent financial crisis had been the most serious challenge facing the Agency. He asked the Commissioner-General to identify different ways in which donors could be more supportive.
The representative of Iran asked about the implementation of resolution 65/272. UNRWA faced a serious budget deficit, yet predictable funding was not possible through voluntary contributions. He recalled that his delegation had raised the issue of funding from the regular United Nations budget, asking what the Secretary-General had done to implement that recommendation.
The representative of the State of Palestine expressed gratitude and support for the UNRWA’s efforts in a turbulent environment and at great personal risk. The Agency’s schools had been attacked during the summer 2014, and several of its staff members had been killed. She asked what measures had been taken to protect UNRWA personnel since then. Moreover, she asked what, if any, specific steps had been taken to ensure accountability for the deaths and destruction.
Commissioner-General KRÄHENBÜHL, responding on the topic of broadening the Agency’s base of support, said that several proactive engagements were under way with a range of additional Member States, including China, Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation. UNRWA had a limited record of working with the World Bank Trust Fund and other trust funds and aspired to do more in that respect.
To the representative of Iran, he said there had been efforts by the Secretary-General’s office to maintain its staff positions. However, UNRWA was predominantly reliant on voluntary contributions. As for the question of security, an assessment had been carried out on the ground in Gaza, and many of the measures identified were being implemented. Moreover, while the entire United Nations system operated under the Department of Safety and Security system, the Department did not cover UNRWA’s national staff due to the high cost. That meant that national staff faced different security challenges from those faced by other United Nations personnel, a matter of great concern, he said, emphasizing that additional measures must be taken. On the accountability question, he said UNRWA was working with Israel on its own fact-finding missions as a first step.
The representative of Pakistan, emphasizing that the illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza must be lifted, asked what was being done through the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism to import building supplies and make progress on reconstruction. Pakistan also wished to know about the situation of families whose houses had yet to be rebuilt.
The representative of Indonesia asked which specific financial “ask” the Agency wished to relay to Member States.
The representative of Algeria said his delegation deeply regretted the tragic situation in Syria, and the fact that some Palestine refugees had been forced to flee to other countries. What was UNRWA doing to provide them with basic services?
The representative of Egypt said Palestine refugees in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, continued to suffer from illegal settlements, and asked what was being done about that issue.
The representative of Israel said he had “textual and methodological” reservations on certain aspects of the report, including its description of various crises affecting Palestine refugees across the Middle East. Cited a number of examples, including vagaries surrounding UNRWA staff who had been killed or gone missing. Israel also questioned words of “gratitude and praise” for Syria’s Assad regime, asking whether UNRWA was presenting that regime as a model to follow. He noted that during today’s presentation, almost 30 minutes had been devoted to a short war in Gaza that had ended 15 months ago, while only five minutes had been devoted to the five-year long war inside Syria. He asked the Commissioner-General to identify the perpetrator of certain crimes in Gaza, noting that the word “Hamas” had been mentioned only once.
The representative of Cuba spotlighted the recent adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, stressing that it was based on leaving no one behind. He asked what was being done for the Palestine refugee population to ensure that the new Agenda was being met.
Mr. KRÄHENBÜHL, responding, said the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism was complex and its results on the ground were a testament to that fact. The amount of material being imported was insufficient, as was support from donors. To the representative of Indonesia, he said that in recent years, UNRWA had been spending between $1.2 billion and $1.3 billion on average, stressing that it needed predicable multi-year funding. UNRWA was mandated to work in a number of countries. Nearly every Palestinian refugee arriving in Jordan and Lebanon was eligible for basic services.
To the representative of Egypt, he said UNRWA engaged with families affected by Israeli settlements, as well as with Israel itself.
To the representative of Israel, he said there was no doubt that some people who were “unaccounted for” had been detained by Syrian Government forces. Whether or not the Secretary-General would decide to create a commission of inquiry on the matter was another question. The content of the 2015 report was much more factual on the Syrian conflict than the 2014 one had been because more information was now available. No matter how much detail was provided on the Syrian war or other crises, every Government had a responsibility to protect the rights of Palestine refugees. He said that he would not hesitate to raise the name of Hamas, emphasizing, however, that there was a need to be factual.
In response to the question from the representative of Cuba, he said that eradicating poverty and ensuring sustainable development was one of UNRWA’s largest challenges. The Agency placed great emphasis on education as it was the basis for alleviating poverty. However, no significant progress could be made if the core issues on the ground were not addressed politically.
ISELIN LARSEN, Rapporteur of the Working Group on the Financing of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, introduced that body’s report (document A/70/379), noting that the Working Group had been established to help the Secretary-General and Commissioner-General of UNRWA find solutions to its financial crisis. In August, the Commissioner-General had issued a special report outlining the background and measures taken by the Agency regarding the crisis, which endangered access to education for half a million Palestinian refugees. The financial gap had eventually been bridged with additional contributions from a number of countries, and all Palestinian refugee children had returned to school on time. Half of the amount raised had come from the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, he said, pointing out that the latter was now the third largest donor to UNRWA overall.
She said that, in its report, the Working Group described the Agency’s operations, all affected by regional unrest. It urged Governments that had not yet done so to contribute regularly to UNRWA, in particularly to its General Fund and those that had made relatively small contributions to raise their support levels. It also called upon Governments that had made generous contributions to the General Fund and emergency budget in the past to continue and strive to increase those contributions, and to resume their support if it had been recently reduced or ceased. While acknowledging the recent increase in their contributions, the Working Group also called upon all member States of the League of Arab States to fulfil their engagement to achieve and sustain the 7.8 per cent target of contributions to UNRWA’s core budget. It called for multi-year funding to enable the Agency to better plan its activities and encouraged all Governments to recognize UNRWA’s significant reforms. The Working Group underlined the need to identify potential sources of funding to meet the Agency’s severance payment obligations, she said, adding that it also urged Governments to finance fully the UNRWA General Fund for 2014-2015 so as to ensure that the real value of contributions was maintained, and that donor support for emergency-related and special projects did not reduce contributions to that Fund.
FEDA ABDELHADY-NASSER, Deputy Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine, expressed appreciation for UNRWA’s efforts, but also regretted that Palestinian staff members of the Agency were the only United Nations staff in the region not entitled to hazard pay. The State of Palestine appealed for redress on that issue. The escalation of tensions being witnessed today were manifestations of an injustice that had persisted for nearly seven decades, becoming “more inhumane, more tragic and more perilous” with time. Successive crises had deepened the vulnerability of Palestine refugees, and their identity and resilience was at risk since, for the first time in decades, they had been forced to leave the region. The phenomenon was especially stark in Syria and the Occupied Palestine including, East Jerusalem, she said. The current refugee and migrant crisis affecting the Middle East as well as Europe underscored the need for humane solutions based on international law and addressing root causes. Comprehensive solutions to the crisis required addressing the historical plight of Palestine refugees.
She reaffirmed the centrality of the right of Palestine refugees to just compensation and the right of those displaced in June 1967 to return to their homes and lands. Israel’s rejection of those rights was irresponsible and a reminder of its “failure to commit to even the most basic principles required for making peace”. In the absence of a just solution, UNRWA remained indispensable, making a tangible difference in the lives of Palestine refugees. The recent risks to the Agency’s education programme for 685 schools and eight vocational centres had caused the future to look bleaker for half a million school children and thousands of youth, she said, commending the Agency’s immediate mobilization to avert that crisis and secure adequate resources for that core programme. The strong donor response to the crisis had been crucial in covering the funding gap, she said, appealing for consistent, sufficient support for UNRWA’s core programmes in order to avert the recurrence of such a crisis.
While recognizing UNRWA’s central role in alleviating the suffering of Palestine refugees and other civilians in Gaza, she said humanitarian aid alone was not enough and the illegal Israeli blockade must be lifted. Meanwhile, Palestine refugees in the West Bank continued to endure forced displacement. As reported, in 2014 alone, 411 refugees had been displaced by home demolitions and 150 refugee structures had been demolished. Israeli occupying forces carried out near-daily raids on the refugee camps, starkly highlighting the need for international protection for the Palestinian people in a situation whereby the occupying Power violated its legal obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and was the direct source of the occupied population’s insecurity and suffering. Additionally, the spillover from the crisis in Syria had exacerbated the Palestine refugee situation in Lebanon, including overcrowding in the camps, she said, urging UNRWA to continue its efforts to improve conditions in the camp. In Syria, 95 per cent of Palestine refugees had become reliant on the Agency for their minimum needs, she noted, stressing the urgent need to address the immediate humanitarian crisis and appealing for open borders and non-discrimination in the face of the refugee crisis.
HOSSEIN MALEKI (Iran), speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, expressed appreciation for the UNRWA staff’s efforts, courage and dedication in serving Palestinian refugees under difficult and often dangerous circumstances. The Movement was seriously concerned about Israel’s violations of Agency immunity and condemned the killing of United Nations personnel and the destruction of its premises. It reaffirmed the Agency’s mandate and essential role until a just and lasting solution was found to the plight of Palestinian refugees, including their right of return and fair compensation on the basis of General Assembly resolution 194 (III). The refugees faced existential threats and were “sinking deeper into poverty and desperation”, a situation exacerbated by the armed conflicts in Syria, he said.
The Israeli authorities continued to restrict the movement of Agency personnel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in East Jerusalem, he continued. The Non-Aligned Movement called upon Israel to lift those restrictions immediately and to lift the Gaza blockade, which was the only way for the Palestinian refugee population to reduce its dependency on UNRWA. It also called on the international community to uphold its responsibilities and bring an end to Israel’s illegal policies and its violations against the Palestinian people, he said. Expressing concern over the situation of Palestinian refugees in Syria and the further displacement they were enduring, he said the Movement recognized the additional demands on the Agency, particularly the increasing need to provide emergency assistance. The persisting funding shortfall, $101 million in 2015, undermined UNRWA’s efforts, and the Movement urged all Member States to increase their contributions so that the Agency would not face financial crisis in coming years. In that regard, the Non-aligned Movement supported General Assembly resolution 65/272, which requested the Secretary-General to continue supporting UNRWA’s institutional strengthening by providing financial resources from the United Nations regular budget.
MANAL RADWAN (Saudi Arabia), speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, thanked UNRWA for its commendable work in the midst of Israeli aggression, but expressed concern that the Agency faced a severe financial crisis that could impair its ability to provide basic services to Palestine refugees. Many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, had taken up the call to assist UNRWA during the recent crisis that had threatened its education programmes, she recalled. The Arab Group called upon States to increase their financial support so that the Agency could continue its programmes. Despite the fact that financial support was critical for the dignity of Palestine refugees, the underlying solution was to compel Israel to stop draining those resources through its destructive practices. It must lift the “suffocating” blockade of Gaza, she said, adding that the Commissioner-General’s report also demonstrated the suffering in the West Bank.
Israel was also violating international law by using live ammunition near the camps and killing Palestinians in cold blood, she continued, emphasizing that it was high time the international community took a brave position and held Israel to account for its crimes. It must also provide protection to the Palestinian people, she said, stressing that the Arab Group supported calls for an end to the Israeli occupation and for that country to withdraw to the June 1967 borders, thereby achieving the two-State solution. Speaking in her national capacity, she said her delegation stood by the Palestinian people and recalled that in the recent past, it had been among the main donors to UNRWA, having provided more than $350 million since 2013. Saudi Arabia had also been among the first Member States to respond to UNRWA’s urgent appeal when the education funding crisis had struck. Saudi Arabia’s assistance to UNRWA underscored its fundamental support for its important work.
ROBERTO STORACI, of the European Union, said that despite the economic and financial crisis, the European Union and its member States remained the largest providers of international assistance to Palestine refugees. Together, its member States contributed almost half of all donor support to UNRWA and were committed partners. The European Union had assured support to the Agency, but also bore the responsibility to acknowledge that securing additional funds for it could not be the only solution to be sought. While remaining dedicated to the Agency and its mandate, the European Union urged it to consider and implement initiatives that would secure a medium-term budget and financial stability while ensuring that services were being delivered to the most vulnerable among the refugee population.
The dire situation in Gaza, which was particularly difficult for refugees, remained one of the main challenges that the Agency must face, he said. Almost 800,000 Palestine refugees in Gaza had required UNRWA’s assistance to meet their basic food needs in 2015. The European Union was extremely concerned that, more than one year after the tragic hostilities of summer 2014, the humanitarian and socioeconomic situation in Gaza remained so dire and the root causes of the conflict continued to be addressed. Recalling the fighting, in which UNRWA facilities, including schools sheltering innocent civilians, had been hit and 11 UNRWA staff members killed, he reaffirmed that compliance with international humanitarian law and international human rights law by States, as well as non-State actors was a cornerstone for peace and security in the region. UNRWA played a pivotal role in meeting humanitarian needs during times of crisis, when Palestinian refugees were made exponentially more vulnerable and increasingly dependent on support, he said, expressing gratitude for the Agency’s irreplaceable work.
DINA KAWAR (Jordan) said that when UNRWA had been established in 1949, the number of refugees had stood at 700,000. Sixty five years later, the challenge had become even more complicated, with more than five million refugees and a reduction in the core services provided to them. It was up to the entire international community to shoulder the issue and find a solution, she said, emphasizing that financial support did not absolve the international community of its moral responsibility. The refugees could not have sustained their resilience without the support of UNRWA, their host countries and the international community, which represented three pillars underpinning assistance. The weakening of any pillar would undermine opportunities for peace, she said.
The shrinking of UNRWA’s funding would increase the burden on host countries and lead to the further deterioration of refugee living conditions, she continued, calling for an expansion of the Agency’s donor base. In cooperation with Sweden and UNRWA, Jordan had organized a ministerial meeting to support the closing of the financial deficit. The Agency played a crucial role through a network of schools, health and social centres in Jordan, home to two million registered Palestinian refugees, or 42 per cent of all such refugees. In years past, she said, her country had made many efforts to address the issue, including playing host to refugees despite its own limited resources. Jordan would continue to play that historic humanitarian role pending a lasting solution to their plight.
CHARBEL WEHBI (Lebanon) said UNRWA’s leadership and staff should be allowed to focus on delivering services to Palestinian refugees and to intensify fund-raising efforts in order to strengthen the Agency’s finances and the predictability of its resources. Lebanon hosted about 400,000 Palestinian refugees — representing 10 per cent of the country’s total population — living in 12 overcrowded camps. It had also welcomed about 45,000 Palestinian refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, but since July, they were no longer receiving cash assistance, their main source of income.
He went on to say that some strides had been made, including a vaccination campaign and the opening of the Lebanese labour market to Palestinian refugees, “but the task remaining ahead of us is enormous”. Reconstruction of the Nahr el-Bared camp should be completed soon, he said it would allow the relocation of 26,000 registered Palestinian refugees still living in temporary accommodation, but only $188 million had been received for that project, leaving a shortfall of $157 million. He urged donors to fully cover UNRWA’s appeal for the basic humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria, which was only 50 per cent funded.
GEIR O. PEDERSEN (Norway) expressed his delegation’s deep concern about the recent escalation of violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including in camps for Palestine refugees. That turbulent situation could negatively affect UNRWA’s ability to respond to the needs of refugees. Increasing demands and lack of resources also affected the Agency’s ability to provide basic services for refugees in all fields of operation. Norway was deeply concerned about those trends as well as the unprecedented financial crisis that had put UNRWA at risk of suspending some of its basic services, including education. The international community, including donors, had a responsibility to enable UNRWA to provide essential humanitarian assistance and basic services to displaced Palestine refugees, he emphasized, adding that priority must be given to the most vulnerable refugee groups. Norway urged donors to support UNRWA by providing predictable financial support, as well as political backing that would secure basic services for Palestine refugees, he said, calling upon them also to maintain or increase their level of support.
IHAB HAMED (Syria) said the international community had betrayed the five million Palestine refugees by its failure to bear its ethical and legal responsibilities to end their predicament. That had left them prey to a settler racist occupation which was violating their basic rights. Despite that bleak image, the right of those refugees to return was inalienable and non-negotiable, he emphasized. He noted that the representative of the occupying authority had expressed concern about refugees in Syria, which was “surrealistic”. General Assembly resolution 194 emphasized refugees’ right to return and their need for compensation. Since 1949, UNRWA had borne witness to their suffering, and was still playing a role in alleviating it despite the repeated targeting of its installations, as in the recent aggression against Gaza. He emphasized that Arab States hosting refugees were not only host countries, but also donors through the colossal services they rendered. Syria had done its duty by receiving refugees and treating them like Syrian citizens and providing them with services. As reported by UNRWA, Syria had been a suitable shelter, in terms of security, standard of living, services and employment.
Currently, however, refugees in Syria were suffering new difficulties, he said. Before expressing condemnation over what was happening to them, it was important to consider what was newly affecting their situation. First, armed terrorist groups, including al-Nusra Front and ISIS, had attacked some Palestinian refugee camps, laying siege to them from the inside, and some refugees had been forced to flee. Secondly, unilateral economic coercive measures had been imposed on Syria, including sanctions imposed by the European Union, whose representative had just spoken as if he were unaware that those sanctions had affected the refugees. The bloc should lift the sanctions to improve the situation of refugees in Syria. He emphasized the need for UNRWA to continue its mandate, as per General Assembly resolution 302, adding that its financial situation must be safeguarded. States which allocated colossal monies to wage wars should review and reconsider their policies, because if even a modicum of such amounts were set aside for Palestine refugees, their situation would be better and a deficit in UNRWA’s budget would never be witnessed. Regrettably those States were shirking their responsibilities, he said.
OLIVIER ZEHNDER (Switzerland) noted the crucial role played by UNRWA in responding to the needs of Palestinian refugees and expressed concerns that the Agency’s precarious financial situation would impede its ability to fulfil its mandate. Although donations had been helpful, a lasting solution was required to avoid new financial crises. The current regional situation had led to increasing human rights abuses against Palestinian refugees, as the Syrian conflict continued to have deplorable consequences for them. The lack of progress towards peace between Palestinians and Israelis, alongside the continuing blockade of Gaza and intensifying violence in the West Bank, were also increasing the vulnerability of the refugees, making them increasingly dependent on UNRWA’s protection. Against that backdrop, the underfunding of the General Fund remained a primary cause of concern, he said, announcing in that regard that Switzerland would increase its regular contribution to 18.5 million Swiss francs for 2016.