By Philippe Lazzarini
For over 70 years, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been a vital source of stability in a region that is rife with conflict.
In December 2019, the mandate of UNRWA was renewed for three years by the UN General Assembly. This enabled the continued provision of life-saving assistance to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
With over half a million girls and boys in some 700 schools, and 8.5 million visits annually to 144 health centres, UNRWA offers a predictability and reassurance that is often absent from the lives of refugees. I knew when I assumed leadership in March that this was a mammoth task, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic was unfolding. One of my primary goals while at the helm of a 30,000 staff-strong agency was to make sure we continued to earn the confidence, support and resources of those who believed in UNRWA and who voted for the renewal of our mandate.
The Agency’s ability to respond to the pandemic despite financial challenges was this year's first test. We focused our humanitarian assistance on immediate life-saving needs. We shifted the way we provide our medical, educational and other humanitarian services without disruption. We switched to telemedicine for healthcare centres and moved to remote education. The Agency’s decisive actions in response to the Covid-19 crisis contributed to preventing the spread of the virus in overcrowded Palestinian refugees camps. So far, less than 170 confirmed cases of infection have been registered among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza. We have our staff to thank for this success. Despite our stretched resources they are the frontline responders.
The health crisis brought devastating socio-economic consequences, hitting particularly hard at the most vulnerable, such as Palestinian refugees, and sending them deeper into unemployment, poverty and despair. This is unfolding against the background of recurrent conflicts that have aggravated the need for humanitarian assistance among Palestinian refugees.
Tawfiq Shanaa, aged 66, plays the oud outside his house in the Rafah camp for Palestinian refugees in southern Gaza, June 20. Said Khatib / AFP
The war in Syria has led to the internal displacement of most of them who stayed in the country – often more than once. The occupation of the West Bank and cycles of violence in Gaza have led to constant degradation. And now the prospect of a possible annexation is further fuelling uncertainty and anxiety. Expectations for UNRWA to deliver more are growing at a time when regular financial restraints often force the Agency to minimise costs to make ends meet, sometimes at the expense of the services itself. Today, there is nothing left for us to save.
So, while I have no doubt in our ability to deliver on our mandate, the continued political and financial commitment of our partners is more important than ever as we attend to mitigating the longer-term socio-economic impact of the coronavirus crisis.
Against this backdrop, the organisation of a virtual Extraordinary Ministerial Conference – co-hosted by Sweden and Jordan tomorrow (June 23) to mobilise political and financial support for UNRWA – is an encouraging sign for the Agency. The UAE, a generous and reliable partner to UNRWA will head the Agency’s Advisory Commission as of July 1st, another encouraging sign for our mobilisation efforts.
In short, a strong UNRWA that can deliver on its mandate can only exist if it has the resources to continue running its quality services. A majority of countries at the UN voted for all our services to continue. We now need the resources to match those votes. This is the only way to keep hope alive for a better future and to move from a welfare model to a model where refugees decrease their dependence on aid and are better able to thrive. We need to put an end to the abject poverty that prevents many Palestinian refugees from living in dignity.
Hana Khalil Emselem Edieb shows the key to her old family house in Dawaymeh, a village near Hebron. She fled that home with her family to escape violence in 1948. She now lives here in Baqa'a Palestinian refugee urban camp. Amman, Jordan, 18 June. Andre Pain / EPA
The positive effect of our work goes far beyond providing essential services. Since 1950, 2.5 million children have graduated from our schools, many of whom have become teachers and educators and have contributed across the region, helping other children graduate. And they have done so with the values and principles that are intrinsic to the UN: those of human rights, peace and tolerance – a culture that UNRWA takes pride in promoting.
Investing in the future of Palestinian refugees is investing in the stability of the region. It is helping them step out of poverty, access modern quality education, adequate health care and, above all, living a dignified life. We count on the continued partnership of our donors and host governments for the benefit of the whole region, until there is a just and lasting solution.
Philippe Lazzarini is the commissioner-general of UNRWA