SOLIDAR Secretary General Conny Reuter met with the Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) representative office to the European Union, Matthias Burchard, on Thursday 18 January to discuss the work and challenges that UNRWA is facing with regards to Palestinian refugees.
Tell us a little bit more on the work carried on by UNRWA?
UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, was established in 1949 by the UN General Assembly with a mandate to provide directly and independently, education, health care, social services, relief assistance and emergency humanitarian aid to a population of Palestine refugees residing in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon – and nowadays amounting to over 5 million people. Established as a temporary Agency, UNRWA has had its mandate renewed every three years since then by the UN General Assembly, pending a just solution to the issue of Palestine refugees in the Near East. UNRWA has no political mandate to seek a solution, but is widely seen as contributing to stability in this region, and recognised for its contribution to the development of the Middle East through its prized education system. The minimum operational requirements of UNRWA to provide all above services amounts to US$ 1.4 billion for 2018, and is almost totally voluntarily funded. Over the years, financial support has been outpaced by the growth in needs, driven by conflict and broader instability.
What are the main challenges UNRWA is facing to continue its mission?
Increased conflict, violence, instability, and human rights violations have raised strong protection concerns, and made Palestine refugees more vulnerable and reliant on UNRWA. Today the drastic and unexpected US funding cuts have exacerbated our already strained financial situation, and turned it into an existential threat. This undermines our ability to provide the much-needed direct assistance through our 32,000-local staff – mainly Palestine refugees themselves - who serve their community as teachers, doctors, nurses, sanitation labourer’s, social workers, psychosocial counsellors, engineers, and lawyers etc. In conflict situations they are trained to become emergency workers. UNRWA staff and infrastructure (schools, clinics, distribution centres etc) allow the Agency to immediately assist in times of crisis. Core funding is therefore essential to maintain such a capacity. In line with the principles of good donorship, funding to UNRWA should not only be sufficient but also predictable and sustainable. Without this, the access of 525,000 boys and girls in 700 UNRWA schools, and their future are at stake. Also at stake is the dignity and human security of millions of Palestine refugees, in need of emergency food assistance and other support in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At stake is the access of refugees to primary health care, including pre-natal care and other life-saving services, and at stake are the rights and dignity of an entire community. UNRWA funding shortfalls not only affect the Agency and Palestine refugees, but also impact regional security - at a time when the Middle East faces multiple risks and threats, notably that of further radicalisation and migration outflows.
What could be a possible solution to overcome current challenges?
Ideally a negotiated just solution based on the two-state-solution, but in the absence of this, the UN Member States need to live up to their responsibilities as stakeholders of UNRWA, and ensure its mandate is not misused for political ends. The Agency should not be blamed for the absence of a political solution, but rather recognised for its achievements that have been well documented by Member States and organisations such as the World Bank. Donors, particularly from the EU, should be proud of the successes of their generous support. As a UN entity whose mandate emanates from the UN General Assembly, we feel UNRWA should enjoy a greater stability in its financial base and thus be able to concentrate on delivering efficient and effective services, until hopefully soon the parties can agree on a solution. Today, at this very daunting time, UNRWA calls on all UN Member States, donors and partners, and people of good will to join us in solidarity. The global campaign #DignityIsPriceless launched by UNRWA will help ensure that Palestine Refugee girls and boys can continue their education and preserve their hope for a better and just future.
Show your solidarity
If you would like any further information about the campaign, you can also contact Nathalie Stanus, UNRWA Liaison Officer, UNRWA Representative Office to the EU; firstname.lastname@example.org, 0032/(0)22903432.
SOLIDAR’s partner from Palestine, the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations Network (PNGO), released its own statement highlighting the serious consequences of US reduced contribution to UNRWA.