It was not only politically risky but also morally wrong to reduce the services provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) heard today as it began its consideration of that Agency.
While the situation of the Palestine refugees was a political question, said UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, Filippo Grandi, as he briefed the Committee, they were first and foremost people, “ordinary men and women who rightly insisted on not being discarded and forgotten as the flotsam and jetsam of history”.
Yet, as the Arab Spring was bringing dynamism and attention to the Middle East, Palestinians remained sidelined, increasingly vulnerable to new conflicts, he lamented. In the past year, the refugees had found themselves caught in the crisis in Syria. Their lives, safety and rights were at risk in a country where they had traditionally enjoyed generous hospitality, complemented by access to UNRWA services, employment and enjoyment of basic rights.
Highlighting the unpredictability of UNRWA’s funding, he added that though the Agency provided public services to an entire population across several countries, “in State-like fashion”, it was reliant on voluntary financing. Compounding that structural problem, overall contributions to its fund had remained static while refugee needs had grown and costs had increased.
If UNRWA was to “fold” ahead of a political agreement, there would be tangible human consequences, he added during the interactive dialogue that followed his address. Half a million children would not go to school, and without health services provided by UNRWA, much would be taken away from the little that the refugees had.
Nothing less than a “quantum and sustained leap” in the international community’s commitment could resolve the funding needs, he stated, calling on all Member States, but particularly “those countries whose economic growth was matched by a more assertive political role”, to step up support. Tiptoeing away from UNRWA was simply not an option for the international community.
Echoing those concerns, Andreas Lovold, Rapporteur of the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA, informed the Committee that the Agency’s working capital, which had been used to compensate for shortfalls of income against expenditures, was now virtually exhausted. With an anticipated funding gap of $37.4 million, the Agency might not be able to meet the December payroll for its 31,000 staff.
During the general debate, several countries from the Middle East expressed concern over the funding deficit as well as the plight of the refugees. A “direct and immediate stakeholder in the Palestine question”, Jordan, said its representative, hosted the majority of the Palestinian refugees. In addition, the country was now host to more than 215,000 Syrian refugees. UNRWA relieved some of the pressures, he said, calling for international support of its operations.
The European Union and its member States was UNRWA’s largest donor, said its delegate, expressing the Union’s determination to ensure that the essential humanitarian and development needs of the refugees were continually met until there was a just, fair and agreed solution. Between 2000 and 2012, the Union had provided 1.4 billion euros to the Agency. Its aim was “more and better services for the money spent”, he said and encouraged the Agency to keep quality and affordability at the heart of its reform process.
Saluting UNRWA staff for their invaluable work amid political upheaval and economic crisis, Norway’s representative commended the Agency as a significant contributor to making Palestine ready for statehood. The Agency had utilized its resources effectively, with improvements in financial management and transparency, he said, encouraging it to work in closer coordination with other United Nations agencies and humanitarian and development actors, in order to avoid parallel systems of service provision.