Address by UNRWA Commissioner-General to the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs – occupied Palestinian territory
On 31 August 2022, Commission-General Philippe Lazzarini briefed Members of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs about the deteriorating situation of Palestine refugees in the Middle East, including the impact of the Ukraine crisis and the last escalation in Gaza earlier this month. During the exchange of views in Brussels, the Commissioner-General also addressed the critical financial situation of the Agency and thanked the Members of the European Parliament for playing a key role in the fruitful EU-UNRWA partnership.
Thank you, M. McAllister, for the invitation to address this Committee, and sincere thanks to all the Members present.
I value our dialogue and highly appreciate our annual exchanges.
Let me start by stressing how the partnership between UNRWA and the European Union has grown stronger.
Last year we celebrated its 50th anniversary, with the signing of a new Joint Declaration.
The EU is one of the most reliable and strategic donors to the Agency, announcing once again this year predictable funding for three years.
It is also thanks to this House that the EU continues to remain one of the strongest allies of UNRWA.
I, therefore, wish to thank you for the continued shows of support, including through your appeals to sustain and increase EU funding to the Agency.
Dear Members of the Parliament,
The consequences of the war in Ukraine are being felt worldwide.
The countries UNRWA operates in are no exception.
The soaring prices of food and commodities are plunging Palestine refugees in the region into deeper poverty.
In Gaza, the escalation of violence earlier this month was a stark reminder that war can erupt anytime in the absence of a genuine and comprehensive effort to resolve the conflict.
Over three days, 60 Palestine refugee families lost their home. Seventeen children were killed. Eight were students in our schools.
Almost one in two UNRWA student suffers from trauma and needs special assistance to cope with the repeated cycles of violence and the economic hardship that their families go through.
Four of the five fields where UNRWA operates – namely Gaza, the West Bank – including East Jerusalem-, Syria and Lebanon – remain in crisis, with over eighty per cent of Palestine refugees in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria living below the poverty line.
Going to school, getting health services, receiving a food parcel are for millions of Palestine refugees their only sources of normality.
They look to UNRWA for that normality.
Dear Members of Parliament,
Today, our collective achievements are at risk.
The chronic underfunding of the Agency over the last decade makes it increasingly challenging for us to fulfil the mandate we received from the UN General Assembly.
Shifting geopolitical priorities, shifting regional dynamics, and the emergence of new humanitarian crises have deprioritized the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
The Agency has also experienced more than once how a change in domestic politics can suspend support overnight.
Such abrupt changes are deeply unsettling.
Despite immense outreach efforts, funding has stagnated over the last decade, forcing us to operate with a shortfall of around US$ 100 million each year.
This might sound like a big figure, and it is.
But in the larger scheme, this is the figure that will help continue injecting stability and hope among one of the most destitute and desperate communities in the region.
For several years now, we have managed this underfunding internally.
But we have depleted our reserves.
We have run the Agency on repeated zero-growth budgets, despite increasing needs and cost of operation.
We reduced operational costs by over US$ 600 million since 2015.
Today, we have reached the limits of austerity and cost control measures.
To those asking whether the Agency can further reduce its services to match the available funds, I pose the following questions:
How many children are we ready to put in one classroom? In Gaza, it is already 50.
Which refugee patients should be denied life-saving hospitalization?
Which families who already report reducing their food intake should not be included in the next round of food or cash distribution?
For Palestine refugees, UNRWA remains the last pillar of the commitment of the international community to their right to a dignified life and to a just and lasting solution.
A major aspect of the role of UNRWA in regional stability stems from the predictability of its high-quality services.
But when Palestine refugees see us delaying salaries, decreasing the quality of services and being unable to respond to increasing needs, they see the support of the international community fading.
Despair and sense of abandonment are growing in Palestine refugee camps.
Despair is a threat to peace and stability.
You heard me saying that UNRWA is now facing an existential threat due to the nature of its financial crisis.
This threat is real and should not be underestimated
The Agency is under three sources of intense pressure:
The commitment of the General Assembly to uphold the rights of Palestine refugees and its instruction to UNRWA to deliver a number of public-like services until a just and lasting solution.
The lack of sufficient funding from UN Member States to implement the mandate and the unpredictability of most of the funding.
The perception that any changes to services or the way they are delivered is an attempt to encroach on the rights of the refugees. Hosts and refugees fear that it may lead to weakening UNRWA and, with time, dismantling it all together.
Failing to reconcile these demands will make the mandate more and more impossible to implement.
It risks pushing over half a million UNRWA students into the streets.
It will deny around two million patients access to health care.
And two million conflict affected refugees will be deprived of cash or food assistance.
Disruption of services would not only be the failure of UNRWA. It would be a collective failure and a failure of multilateralism, so dear to this House.
Only a fully-funded program budget and predictable funding will allow the Agency to fulfill its mandate and continue to play its stabilizing role in a volatile region.
Let me reiterate here my deep gratitude to the EU for leading by example and not only provide predictable financial support but also support our outreach efforts to other UN Member States.
A ministerial event co-hosted by Jordan and Sweden in September, with the participation of the UN Secretary-General, will discuss sustainable solutions to UNRWA financial challenges.
Despite this immense challenge, UNRWA is continually looking to adapt and evolve to respond both to the protracted nature of conflicts and to new emergencies, stretching resources to service the greatest need.
Our health services are already largely digitalized, and telemedicine, which started in Gaza as a response to the pandemic, is now being mainstreamed across all fields.
As every child must be able to perform and compete in an increasingly digitalized world, UNRWA is committed to giving Palestine refugees that ability.
We are putting educational technology and increasing digital literacy at the core of our education programme.
And the EU is contributing directly to this goal by giving 3,000 tablets to Palestine refugees.
Let me pause here for a moment to address the value of UNRWA education.
I want to do so because I think we share the same view: that education remains a powerful and fundamental tool in helping every child achieve their full potential and building peaceful societies.
Regrettably, coordinated campaigns by politically motivated advocacy groups, targeting Parliaments of countries supporting the Agency, are increasing in frequency and maliciousness.
They do not have the well-being of Palestine refugee children at heart.
Sometimes, they go as far as actively spreading false and baseless accusations in a sensationalist way.
To undermine the Agency’s reputation and its funding.
Their end goal?
To undermine the rights of Palestine refugees.
I will repeat what I mentioned last year to this Committee: UNRWA has zero tolerance for hate speech, incitement to violence and discrimination.
But zero-tolerance does not equate to zero risk – especially in the complex and highly politicized and emotional environment in which we operate.
Therefore, we continue to spare no effort to uphold humanitarian principles, including neutrality, and the values of the United Nations:
Ninety-three per cent of our personnel have taken the Agency-mandated training aimed at increasing their understanding of neutrality and of their obligations in that regard.
UNRWA undertakes an independent investigation into every serious allegation. Over the last year, 4 UNRWA personnel were confirmed to have breached their neutrality obligation as UN personnel. Administrative or disciplinary actions will be taken, in line with UN rules and regulations. Another 15 personnel are currently being investigated for alleged neutrality breaches.
Overall this represents less than 0.1% of our 30,000- strong workforce. This low incident rate speaks to the effectiveness of the Agency’s preventive system.
Thanks to our centrally managed Digital Learning Platform, all our self-learning material to help students learn remotely upholds UN values and UNESCO standard.
Starting this week, our 710 schools are opening their doors to over half a million girls and boys.
We provide an education that enshrines a human rights culture, seeking to instill tolerance in a context where children are exposed to poverty, conflict, displacement and violence.
The World Bank and UNHCR have praised the quality and efficiency of our education, stressing how UNRWA students outperform their peers attending public school by one year of learning.
Success stories are everywhere:
from Ghada, who is among the first women technicians in renewable energy in Gaza,
to Bara’a, who joined a medical research team in Spain making groundbreaking progress in the fight against pancreatic cancer,
to Wajeeh, an 11-year-old student in Jordan who won third place in the Worldwide Mental Arithmetic Competition this month,
to Rama in Syria, who was among the best achievers in the national exams last June , despite her protracted displacement due to the conflict.
I am hereby inviting you to come to our schools to witness the eagerness, brightness and sharpness of our school children.
It is truly a success story.
Palestine refugees hold on very tightly to a good education.
They know that this is their passport to a better life and a brighter future.
You must be able to see for yourselves the positive change that your support has helped create.
It is very different from what the detractors seek to promote.
Your investment in the education, dignity and hope of Palestine refugees is an investment in regional stability and peace.
It is an irreplaceable investment and an investment we should all be proud of.
Thank you, Mr Chair.