Conference on humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees opens in Geneva

During the war in 1967, about 400,000 Palestinians fled across the Jordan River, even after the bridge was destroyed. (UNRWA)


GENEVA — A two-day conference hosted by the Swiss Government and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) opened this morning in Geneva to address the humanitarian needs of 4 million Palestinian refugees and to come up with the best practical solutions to attend to these needs.

In his opening remarks, Peter Hansen, the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, said that the gathering was a testimony of the international community to the growing needs of the Palestinian refugees and was being held at an historic moment.  The conference was an opportunity for participants to work together on addressing key humanitarian aspects of the Palestinian refugees.  What was needed was better cooperation between donors and host countries on defining the real needs of the Palestinian refugees and thinking collectively how to meet them.  The conference marked a big step in that direction.

The Commissioner-General read out the message of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the occasion of the meeting.  In his message, the Secretary-General recalled the continuing struggle of the Palestinian refugees to cope with increased socio-economic hardship, noting that since September 2000, the number of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who relied on UNRWA for food aid had risen from 130,000 to 1.1 million and in the same period, the percentage of Palestinians living below the poverty line had tripled from 20 per cent to 60 per cent.  Moreover, the message underlined the upsurge of violence in recent months, particularly in Rafah last month where the demolition of Palestinian homes by the Israeli army had resulted in a significant loss of Palestinian life.

In closing his message, the Secretary-General appealed to all participants to embrace the aims of the conference, and reinforce the partnerships with UNRWA that had been nurtured since its inception in 1950.

Ambassador Walter Fust, Director-General of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and Chairman of the conference, expressed the importance of keeping a comprehensive view of the Palestinian refugees’ situation in all five of UNRWA’s areas of operations – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza – while adding the importance of adopting a medium-term solution to the challenges facing UNRWA.

“We will have been successful if this conference and the process it is part of lead to a tangible improvement in the living conditions and life expectations of the Palestinian refugees”, said Ambassador Fust, who also provided an overview of the workshops that would be held in the course of the two-day gathering and whose goal was to build a high degree of consensus on the key challenges facing Palestinian refugees and on the main areas where humanitarian action was needed to address these challenges.  The themes of the workshops were promoting the well-being of the Palestinian refugee child; community development and refugees; promoting the socio-economic development of Palestinian refugees; and conditions for the successful management and mobilization of resources on behalf of Palestinian refugees.

The Executive Secretary to the Conference and UNRWA’s Director of External Relations, Andrew Whitley, provided an introduction to the workshops, indicating that they had been the culmination of six months of work among four working groups in Gaza, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman.  In short, the aim of the workshops was to reach a consensus on the best way forward to address the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian refugees.

A short documentary entitled “The Story of UNRWA and the Palestinian Refugees” was also screened in the opening meeting.

The conference is expected to gather dozens of high-level delegations including representatives from communities hosting Palestinian refugees, the United Nations family and donor countries.  It will reconvene in public at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, 8 June at the International Conference Centre in Geneva.

STATEMENTS

PETER HANSEN, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), in opening the conference, said the two-day gathering was a testimony of the international community to the growing needs of the Palestinian refugees and was being held at an historic moment.  It gave a chance to take a longer-term look at the needs of the 4 million Palestinian refugees which UNRWA served.  The conference was an opportunity for participants to work together on addressing the key humanitarian aspects of the Palestinian refugees.  The intifada, which had been raging over the past 45 months, represented a danger to losing focus on long-term needs of the Palestinian refugees.  Provided that there was an adequate and appropriate donor response, beginning next January a medium-term plan which had been developed in recent months and would be finalized at the Conference would provide tools to make up the ground which had been lost in several areas over the years due to chronic under-funding.  As a consequence, it was hoped that UNRWA would, once again, be in the vanguard in the region in the areas of health, education, social welfare and vocational training.

The Commissioner-General highlighted three things needed by UNRWA and the conference’s co-sponsor, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, for them to remain relevant:  high-quality staff, the right supporting environment and adequate funding.  Moreover, what was needed was better cooperation between donors and host countries on defining the real needs of the Palestinian refugees and thinking collectively how to meet them.  The Conference marked a big step in that direction.

Mr. Hansen then read the message to the conference of Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, in which the Secretary-General recalled the continuing struggle of the Palestinian refugees to cope with increased socio-economic hardship, and to grapple with painful uncertainty about the future.  Since September 2000, the number of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who relied on UNRWA for food aid had risen from 130,000 to 1.1 million and in the same period, the percentage of Palestinians living below the poverty line had tripled from 20 per cent to 60 per cent.  There had also been a substantial rise in the number of people making use of UNRWA’s primary health services. 

The Secretary-General further underlined the upsurge of violence in recent months, particularly in Rafah in May where the demolition of Palestinian homes by the Israeli army resulted in a significant loss of Palestinian life, and which led to a Security Council resolution calling on Israel to respect its obligations under international humanitarian law.  The resolution also called on the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to immediately implement their obligations under the Quartet’s “Road Map”, which continued to offer a way to reach a comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Secretary-General highlighted UNRWA’s, as well as the host community’s, invaluable contribution to the well-being and stability of the refugee community.  “A Palestinian refugee child born today is more likely than at any time in the past, and more likely than his or her non-refugee peers in the region, to survive infancy in good health”, the Secretary-General’s message said.  Moreover, today Palestinian refugees were universally literate.  These achievements had placed social indicators for Palestinian refugees ahead of much of the developing world.

The under-funding of UNRWA’s budget was reflected in overcrowded classrooms and clinics, and in the decaying infrastructure of the Agency, the Secretary-General noted.  “There is real concern that if these trends continue, the key human development strengths of the Palestinian refugee population will begin to unravel.”  The dedication of the staff in the occupied Palestinian territory, who had kept operations going in difficult circumstances, and nine of whom had been killed in the past three years, had been exceptional, the Secretary-General stated.

In closing his message, the Secretary-General appealed to all participants to embrace the aims of the conference, and reinforce the partnerships with UNRWA that had been nurtured since 1950.

WALTER FUST, Director-General of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and Chairman of the conference, said that in all, some 350 representatives from 62 countries and 29 international organizations had responded positively to the invitations issued to attend the conference, which was a reflection of the interest that the conference had aroused in the world.  The conference itself was being convened to address the humanitarian needs of the refugees and was not linked to any ongoing political discussions or initiatives and it was important that participants did not deviate from the humanitarian objectives set forth.

Mr. Fust provided an overview of the workshops that would be held in the course of the two-day gathering and whose goal was to build a high degree of consensus on the key challenges facing Palestinian refugees and on the main areas where humanitarian action was needed to address these challenges.  The themes of the workshops were promoting the well-being of the Palestinian refugee child; community development and refugees; promoting the socio-economic development of Palestinian refugees; and conditions for the successful management and mobilization of resources on behalf of Palestinian refugees.

The Ambassador recalled initiatives taken by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation on a related approach, namely the gathering it organized in Montreux in December 1998 bringing together UNRWA and its donors and a similar meeting in Lausanne in December 2000 with the objective of responding rapidly to the emergency funding needs arising from the tragic humanitarian situation then prevailing in the refugees camps in the West Bank and Gaza.

In closing, Mr. Fust expressed the importance of keeping a comprehensive view of the Palestinian refugee situation in all five of UNRWA’s areas of operations – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza.  It was also important that a medium-term perspective on the challenges facing UNRWA was adopted.  “In the medium term, we will have made progress if this Conference leads to stronger partnerships between UNRWA, the host authorities, donors and partner agencies.  But most of all, we will have been successful if this Conference and the process it is part of lead to a tangible improvement in the living conditions and life expectations of the Palestinian refugees.”

ANDREW WHITLEY, Executive Secretary of the Conference and UNRWA Director of External Relations, briefly introduced the workshops to be held and which had been the culmination of six months of work among four working groups in Gaza, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman.  These groups had been made up of UNRWA staff and representatives from the host communities and had produced a short discussion paper identifying the needs of the Palestinian refuges in different sectors.  The recommendations within were a starting point by which the international community could respond to the needs of the Palestinian refugees.  The process itself, he said, was not a negotiation process but it was the hope that the end result would be to settle on the highest common denominator in each of the four areas being addressed.  In short, the aim of the workshops was to reach a consensus on the best way forward to address the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian refugees.

Related Links

  • Meeting the humanitarian needs of the Palestine refugees in the Near East, UNRWA Conference Documents (7-8 June 2004)
  • BY TOPIC: Refugees