In Annual Speech in Geneva, Acting UNRWA Commissioner-General Saunders Outlines 2020 Plans to Support Palestine Refugees

Arabic: العربية

Good morning

My name is Christian Saunders, and I am the Acting Commissioner-General of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. UNRWA is the UN agency mandated by the UN General Assembly to provide protection and assistance to some 5.6 million Palestine refugees in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank including East Jerusalem.

This is opportune timing for UNRWA to be in Geneva, at the start of the year, to call on our partners, donors and supporters to help us continue to provide protection, critical basic services and emergency assistance to Palestine refugees in 2020.

We are here, as we are every year, to present to representatives of the international community and representatives of the humanitarian world UNRWA’s plan to respond to the protection and assistance needs of Palestine refugees and the budget that such a plan will require for 2020. Behind this plan and numbers, we must never forget that UNRWA’s work is driven by the need to protect the rights of the millions of Palestine refugees we are mandated to serve.

I am sure that given the developments of the last two days, with the announcement by the US administration of the US “Peace Plan”, there will also be questions from you on what this might mean for Palestine refugees and for UNRWA.

I want to begin by reiterating that UNRWA is a humanitarian organization. Our role is to provide assistance and protection to Palestine refugees, including education, healthcare, relief and social services and emergency assistance in times of crisis and conflict, until such time as there is a just and lasting solution for Palestine refugees.

As you will be aware, UNRWA is not mandated to participate in Middle East peace negotiations or discussions on solutions to the refugee issue. Nonetheless, as the UN Agency responsible for Palestine refugees, we do have a crucial humanitarian mandate to protect and defend the rights of these refugees under international law. As the main UN presence in our five areas of operation, Palestine refugees also look to us for reassurance at such times when their rights and safety come under threat.

Given the status of UNRWA as both the humanitarian organization responsible for Palestine refugees and as a UN Agency, we therefore see part of our role is to uphold

the position of the UN and of international law for the human rights of Palestine refugees, where ever they are located in our areas of operation, including East Jerusalem, and the mandate of UNRWA.

The position of the UN, and therefore of UNRWA, was firmly reiterated by the UNSG in his statement of Tuesday (and I quote): The position of the United Nations on the two-State solution has been defined, throughout the years, by relevant Security Council and General Assembly resolutions by which the Secretariat is bound. Moreover, the UNSG has repeatedly expressed his unequivocal support to UNRWA.

I also believe that UNRWA has a responsibility to reassure the Palestine refugee community, who already live in such precarious and uncertain conditions, that their human rights and status under international law have not changed, and consequently that the role of UNRWA to uphold those rights has not changed. We also have a responsibility to continue to draw attention to the 5.6 million Palestine refugees affected by any proposed solutions to the conflict and the refugee issue. A just and lasting solution cannot be reached unilaterally and without their voices being taken into account.

UNRWA’s mandate has just been renewed at the UN General Assembly with overwhelming support and votes by UN member-states. The UN General Assembly bestowed upon UNRWA a mandate in 1949, and the General Assembly is where any action related to UNRWA’s role and work with Palestine refugees is discussed and decided.

UNRWA’s mandate remains untouched. That is the desire of the international community, and we thank Member States for their continued trust in UNRWA to fulfil that mandate.

We are confident that the international community will also continue to stand behind its commitment to Palestine refugees until such time as there is a just and lasting solution for them that is in line with the relevant UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions and international law.  That commitment to Palestine refugees, and the fulfilling of the corresponding mandate of UNRWA with the support of the international community, is what I want to focus on here today.

As you are aware, UNRWA works across five fields of operations or five areas (the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) and provides critical services, at times lifesaving, that impact the lives of millions of people. These millions of people, the 5.6 million Palestine refugees, their rights and their future, are what is at stake without sustainable support for UNRWA. For them, UNRWA means

Education, it means health care, housing, social services, financial assistance, protection, and emergency assistance during times of conflict.

We provide quality education in our schools for half a million girls and boys. UNRWA has had gender parity in its schools since the mid 1960’s. Some of the highest achievers in the region are UNRWA school graduates, despite the often very difficult circumstances under which they live. This is a huge achievement for human development and stability in the region, of which UNRWA is proud.

Our comprehensive primary health care is offered through 144 UNRWA health centres. In 2019, a total of 3.5 million refugees received health services through 8.5 million patient visits that contributed to significant health gains, particularly in the areas of family health, maternal and child health and the control of non-communicable diseases.

Our relief and social services support the most vulnerable Palestine refugees in their community and contribute, as much as we can with limited resources and in the face of overwhelming needs, to their improved wellbeing. We would love to be able to do more, particularly for those who are most in need.

Our microfinance loans allow Palestine refugees, primarily young people and especially women, to start a business that enables them to become financially self-sufficient.

Our vital emergency assistance for Palestine refugees affected by the ongoing conflict in Syria, blockade in  Gaza,  and  occupation  in  the  West  Bank  and  East  Jerusalem continues, all be it at a much lower level due to funding constraints

Underpinning all our work is the role that the world has bestowed on UNRWA as the entity that seeks to safeguard and advance the rights of Palestine refugees under international law. And that, by itself, is a ray of light that millions of Palestine refugees still hold on to: that there is an international entity, a UN agency, that was created to protect and defend their rights until there is a negotiated solution to the conflict that includes a just and durable solution to their plight. To undermine these principles is to undermine the hope  of  5.6  million  refugee  men,  women,  boys  and  girls  and  it  is particularly important at this time that the international community  demonstrates   it has not forgotten them. The fundamental human rights of the Palestine refugees must be upheld.

UNRWA continues to deliver on its commitment because the international community has given us the mandate do to so and because we are bound to honour that commitment. And we do this well, despite the recurrent challenges that we face, from the crises and conflicts in the region, to financial shortages and the constant political pressure and the Increasing undermining of our work by partisan groups seeking to persuade political decision makers in our donor countries to remove our funding.

In 2018, UNRWA’s largest donor at that time, the United States, stopped funding us, cutting nearly one third of our budget. The repercussions on our finances and plans were huge, but the support we received from our member states and partners was phenomenal, and a true testament to the continued international commitment to Palestine refugee. This incredible support allowed us to continue to provide vital services and protection to Palestine refugees, despite the potential implications of this loss of funding. Such a reaction by donors and partners reflected the trust that they place in UNRWA and their firm belief that Palestine refugees must continue receiving our protection and assistance until there is a solution. However unfortunately in 2019 this   initial   support   started   to   wane   and   as   a   result   we    have    been forced to carry over considerable liabilities into 2020.

A few months ago UNRWA faced a different type of challenge, with allegations of misconduct that led to the departure of its top management. I want to reassure the international community that since then we have put the place in order and are in the process of putting in place a series of management initiatives that aim to make UNRWA a  stronger,  more  transparent  and  yet  more   effective  organization.  We owe it   to the Palestine refugees, our beneficiaries to be the most effective organization we can possibly be and UNRWA is committed to do whatever is necessary to demonstrate    to our donors and supporters that we are a dependable provider of high quality and cost- effective services. In sum that we provide extremely good value for money!

Some will say “UNRWA is always in financial trouble”, and in a way this is true! Every year, we wonder whether we will be able to raise the funds necessary to deliver the basic and lifesaving services we are mandated to provide for Palestine refugees. Every year we try to reconcile the undeniable needs of Palestine refugees with a realistic plan on the basis of how much support we expect to get from donors and partners. Every year, we wish our financing could be more predictable and stable and we wish we could know, at the beginning of the year that our programmes that contribute to saving lives, fulfilling the rights of Palestine refugees, and maintaining progress on human development are fully funded. Most importantly, every year Palestine refugees themselves face this uncertainty about their future. We must work together to change this!

On the one hand, we have a group of steadfast and predictable donors whose trust and support I wish to acknowledge  and  to  take  the  opportunity  to  express  my  heartfelt appreciation. But we also have a significant portion of our funding from A continuously changing donor-base. This is positive in the sense that UNRWA has new sources of funding and support, but it also contributes to the significant uncertainty as this funding is by no means consistent from year to year.

UNRWA is often asked why we do not reduce services given the funding situation facing us.  The fact is that   the   rights   of   Palestine   refugees   have   not changed, but the needs of Palestine refugees are changing and the needs are increasing. Over the last five years UNRWA has achieved over US$ 500 million in efficiencies and is already operating at maximum capacity. However some of these cuts were made in order for the agency to survive and in some areas they have gone too far and the quality and breadth of our services have suffered as a result in recent years. We have not been able to maintain much of our infrastructure and it is in a state of serious disrepair with much of our capital equipment being many many years past its normal life cycle. This past school year we taught more students with fewer teachers, resulting in even larger class sizes. Our ability to do this is testament to the commitment and dedication of UNRWA teachers and education programme. However, this trend is not sustainable in the long term whilst maintaining the quality of education that Palestine refugee children have a right to and deserve.

UNRWA is very cost effective as a direct service provider: all our schools, 709 schools, employ staff, teachers, principals and others from the refugee community at salaries that are comparable to local salaries and much below normal UN local staff salaries. The same applies to our 144 health centers and the staff we employ in them.

We are stretched to our limits under our shrinking budgets and the growing needs of Palestine refugees who are impacted by the same volatility and unpredictability that people face in the Middle East every day. In 2020, Palestine refugees in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria will continue to face a range of daunting human development and protection challenges. Central to these pressures is the ongoing occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the blockade of Gaza, the continuing conflict in Syria, the political crisis in Lebanon  and  the  growing economic needs in Jordan, all of which continue to dramatically impact the lives of Palestine refugees.

Since 1949, UNRWA has been mandated by the United Nations General Assembly member states to provide protection and essential services to Palestine refugees until there is a just and lasting solution to their plight. The United Nations, and UNRWA as the UN agency with responsibility for Palestine refugees, have always advocated for a negotiated just solution that is based on international law and relevant UN resolutions.

Until then, UNRWA will  continue  to  rely  on  the  political  and  financial  support of you, its donors  and  partners  to  provide  essential  services  that  contribute  to  the protection, dignity and human development of Palestine refugees. This is why we are here in Geneva: we need to hear from our donors and supporters that their commitment to Palestine refugees remains as strong as ever.

Until today, the international community has shown, year after year, its commitment to upholding multilateralism by continuing to invest in UNRWA until there is a just and lasting solution of the plight of Palestine refugees, one which is based on international law. We are truly grateful for that, and hope that 2020 will be a year where we continue to deliver on the pledge that we, as an international community, have taken so as to protect the rights of 5.6 million Palestine refugees in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

The    plan    that    was    released    this    week    is     extremely    unsettling     for the Palestine refugees living under  occupation,  under  blockade  and  through conflict after conflict and crisis after  crisis,  hoping  for  justice and human rights,  and   with   the   constant   fear   that   the    international    community    will    one day abandon them. Today, more than ever there is a need for stability and today the international community must send a clear message to Palestine refugees and to the world at large that the international community stands firmly behind them.

Thank you.

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 5.6 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.


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