By Bernhard Schell
AMMAN | STOCKHOLM (IDN) – Seventy-five governments and non-governmental organisations have pledged $130 million in financial commitments to sustain the operations and services of the acutely underfunded United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). They gave the assurance at an extraordinary global meeting at the ministerial level. Sweden and Jordan hosted the online conference on June 23.
UNRWA is the UN agency responsible for providing protection, health care, education, relief and social services, emergency response and other lifesaving services to more than 5.6 million Palestine refugees across the Middle East.
The needs of these refugees are rising as a consequence of the outbreak and long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic downturn in host countries, and the political instability on top of the continued occupation of Palestinian Territory, the blockade on Gaza, and the conflict in Syria.
The theme of this special pledging conference was “A Strong UNRWA in a Challenging World” – Mobilizing Collective Action”. Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Ayman Safadi and Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation Peter Eriksson co-chaired the meeting, with UN Secretary-General António Guterres participating.
Jordan’s Foreign Affairs Minister told the conference that “This is a time for action. Supporting UNRWA is a necessary action. The agency has done all it could to ensure efficiency and effectiveness in its operations. We must stand by it”.
Sweden’s Minister for International Development Cooperation urged traditional and non-traditional donors to “translate political support for UNRWA into financial support and contribute to a more sustainable UNRWA with multi-annual support to its programme budget”. Mr Eriksson that “supporting UNRWA is critical for stability by ensuring that half a million children can continue to go to school and respond effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic”.
UN Chief Guterres said: “In December 2019, UN Member States voted overwhelmingly in support of renewing the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. UNRWA stands as a vital source of stability in a region rife with ongoing conflict and now also battling the health, economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“All nations must come together to create the long-term financial mechanisms necessary for the Agency to continue uninterrupted its UN-mandated mission to protect and assist a vulnerable population of 5.6 million Palestine refugees.”
“The results of today’s conference demonstrate the international commitment to the rights and well-being of Palestine refugees and the role of UNRWA as their essential provider of human development and humanitarian aid until the political entities involved reach a just and lasting solution to their plight,” said UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini.
Palestine refugees have long lived with the threat that UNRWA operations might be suspended. UNRWA has long lived from hand to mouth, he added. “Today, we took a significant step forward in addressing the Agency’s chronic short and long-term financial challenges, including promoting multiyear agreements, expanding the donor base, and exploring innovative funding avenues and mechanisms. I commend today’s participants for sharing our goal to promote the dignity and the rights of Palestine refugees,” Mr Lazzarini said.
The UNRWA sources says, the funding crisis the Agency is facing has harmed the welfare of Palestinian refugees across the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
It was created by the UN General Assembly 70 years ago to deal with the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who were driven from their homes or fled the conflict during Israel’s 1948 creation.
“No one expected that 70 years later this support would still be needed,” said the UNRWA commissioner Lazzarini. “No Palestine refugees want to be a refugee for so long. No one is a refugee by choice. Until their plight is addressed, a predictable UNRWA is, among other support, what Palestine refugees and the region need.”
“Time is sensitive,” Jordan’s Foreign Affairs Minister Safadi said. “We face the consequences of coronavirus. This is an important time to send a message of hope and solidarity. Support for the UNRWA must not falter. It would mean abandoning and giving up on five million Palestinian refugees.” he added.
He went on to say: “We are talking about putting food on their table and ensuring their children go to school. This is a time for action. The agency has done all it could to ensure efficiency and effectiveness in its operations. We must stand by it.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that he was planning to annex parts of the occupied West Bank in what would be a major and highly controversial move, Mr Safadi said. He warned that the “window is narrowing” for countries to speak out against Israel’s annexation plans.
“We meet at a time when all prospects for a just, comprehensive peace that is the right of all peoples of the region are being threatened by Israel’s decision to annex one third of the occupied West Bank, in violation of international law,” he said.
Annexation must not happen, Mr Safadi said, adding that it would “kill the two-state solution and undermine all chances for peace”.
Participants in the online conference included and ministers and senior officials from 75 governments and international organisations, representing all regional groups of the United Nations.
The UNRWA’s nearly 30,000 staff quickly adapted the way they run services to the new reality, while continuing to ensure Palestine refugees have access to education, health, relief and social services.
Across all five of its geographic fields of operation, UNRWA addresses the most pressing humanitarian needs and lays down a pathway to human development. Poverty eradication and respect for human rights, central pillars of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are at the core of the Agency’s work on behalf of Palestine refugees. [IDN-InDepthNews – 24 June 2020].
Photo: A Palestine refugee woman receives food assistance at the UNRWA Khan Younis Distribution Centre in Gaza. Credit: UNRWA | Tamer Hamam
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