A statement by the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights:
It is with the gravest concern that BADIL learns of the suggested postponement of the academic year for half a million Palestinian students across the Middle East as a result of the funding crisis faced by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). This funding gap – currently standing at US $101 million - comes as the result of an ever-growing Palestinian refugee population, a deepening level of poverty within that population, and an absence of the international protection to which Palestinian refugees are entitled.
Access to education is not just a basic human right, but a crucial building block of a healthy, functioning society. As such, the postponement of the academic year represents an individual tragedy for students, but also acts indirectly as a form of punishment which targets the Palestinian people. In addition, this funding gap will place further strain on host states which are themselves operating at full capacity and suffering from chronic underfunding in their protection of refugees. Not only does this harm refugees in practice, but it also sets a dangerous precedent of policy insofar as UNRWA is able to gradually divest itself of its responsibilities towards those to whom it is mandated to provide services.
Accordingly, BADIL takes this opportunity to remind UN organs and member states of the need to ensure that UNRWA is adequately funded so as to fulfill its essential mandate, and to avoid the overburdening of national governments. The address of this lack of funding – resulting from a gross shortfall in voluntary contributions from member states –for such an essential UN body must be a top priority for the UN General Assembly and Secretary General.
But what this current crisis reveals is a fundamentally flawed and – ultimately – entirely unsustainable approach to the protection of Palestinian refugees. The pressing question must surely not be how the steady increase in demand for essential services can be met, but rather how this demand can be reduced. Reduction in demand must necessarily include the tackling of secondary displacement from host countries, which have – as witnessed in Syria and the Gaza Strip - generated mass human suffering and placed a steady drain on already scant humanitarian resources.
To this end, Palestinian refugees have become the victims of a collective short-sightedness, manifesting itself in an approach which focuses on tackling ever-worsening symptoms at the expense of any concerted effort to address the root causes of the displacement or to facilitate a fair, just and durable solution to this most protracted of refugee crises. Such a solution requires the marrying of humanitarian and legal responses, bolstered by full political support.
What is required is a solution which identifies and addresses the root causes of both the continued displacement of Palestinians and the worsening living standards to which this population is subjected; a solution which sees the inalienable rights of Palestinian refugees not just recognized in word, but enacted in deed. Until such a solution is implemented, the role of UNRWA in affording protection to Palestinian refugees is absolutely essential, and it is a role which demands prompt and adequate funding. Whilst the funding crisis endures, so too will the multitude of hardships faced by Palestinian refugees.
BADIL therefore calls upon:
- The UN Secretary–General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, to immediately take practical measures to address the shortfall in UNRWA’s budget and thus enable the agency to fulfill its mandate;
- Mr. President, Mahmoud Abbas - through the Arab league, Islamic Conference Organization and non-aligned states - to draft and issue a UNGA decision which would render states’ contribution to the UNRWA budget as mandatory (as is presently the case with other specialized agencies), rather than their current status of such contributions as voluntary grants;
- The UNHCR to make the filling of the protection gap (the devastating effects of which Palestinian refugees have suffered since the 1950s following the cessation in function of the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine) a priority of the highest order.