31 October 2003

Palestinian Refugee Agency Still Faces Major Challenges as Situation in Occupied Territories Worsens, Commissioner-General Tells Fourth Committee

Presenting Annual Report, He Cites Israeli Military Operations, Funding Shortfalls

NEW YORK, 30 October (UN Headquarters) -- The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) continued to face major challenges in implementing its mandate amid an ever-worsening socio-economic and humanitarian situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, the Agency's Commissioner-General told the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) this afternoon.

Presenting his annual report to the Committee, Commissioner-General Peter Hansen said UNRWA had seen a mild improvement in its overall financial health, which could lead to a restoration of the quality of services that had existed before a long period of under funding.  However, major challenges to the Agency's operations were hampering its ability to assist Palestine refugees, some 60 per cent of whom were now living below the poverty line.  Those challenges included Israeli military operations, closures, curfews, demolition of buildings and an ever-worsening economy.

Describing the difficulties facing UNRWA, he said a main feature of the past year had been an increase in the demolition of refugee shelters in the Gaza Strip, where some 616 had been destroyed.  In the West Bank, close to 100 shelters had been destroyed and many more needed repair.  While major projects were under way in Jenin, Khan Younis and Rafah, there was no way the Agency could keep pace with the rate of destruction, he added.

Addressing the Agency's financial situation, he said UNRWA's funding was not keeping pace with the growing population that it was mandated to serve.  While management reforms had led to significant improvements, the Agency had been grappling with the absence of working capital and cash flow insufficiencies that had threatened staff salary payments.  The reliance of Palestine refugees on UNRWA to help them survive had increased due to the retrenchment of other international agencies and donor fatigue.  "More money is needed, not less", he emphasized.

The Observer for Palestine said that UNRWA's operating environment remained volatile and unstable, imposing even more burdens on the Agency and its resources.  The delivery of humanitarian supplies, including food, medicine, blood and other urgently needed items, was often blocked or delayed and Agency staff were frequently prevented from reaching their jobs and returning to their homes.  Six staff members had been killed during the reporting period and UNRWA schools, training centres and health facilities had been damaged by the actions of the occupying forces.

Jordan's representative said his country hosted more than 1.7 million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA, or some 42.1 per cent of the total number of Palestine refugees and about 90 per cent of the total number of Palestinians displaced since 1967.  Jordan spent some $400 million on educational services, health, infrastructure, social welfare and security services for those refugees in addition to improving living conditions in 13 camps around the country.  Jordan called on donor countries to increase their contributions until a final solution was found to the question of Palestine refugees.

Lebanon's representative said the question of Palestine refugees could not be reduced to issues of food and shelter since it was also a question of freedom, dignity and a return to one's own land.  Lebanon's position was based on the refusal of the Palestinians to stay in Lebanon and their call for a return to their own homeland.  It was also based on Lebanon's refusal to settle the refugees on its territory, a refusal that was now enshrined in the Lebanese Constitution.  Furthermore, the refugees were a burden that exceeded Lebanon's ability to cope, besides causing a demographic imbalance in the country.

Syria's representative said that as a host, his country did everything it could to support the Palestine refugees.  However, providing them with a dignified way of life was a tremendous financial burden, costing the Government some $94 million this year alone for education, social services, health care and housing.  Syria encouraged donors to increase their contributions so that UNRWA could carry out its responsibilities more easily. The situation facing the Palestinian refugees was the result of Israel's bloodthirsty policies, which proved that Israel was not ready to reach a fair and comprehensive peace.

Also speaking this afternoon were the representatives of Bangladesh, United States and Italy (on behalf of the European Union).

Hans Jacob Frydenlund (Norway), Rapporteur of the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA, introduced that body's report.

The Fourth Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. on Monday, 3 November to continue its consideration of UNRWA's activities.



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