The curse of statelessness – The plight of Palestinian refugees

Peter Hansen, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), has made a call for a just solution to the long-running Palestine refugee problem in order that the refugees can fulfill their human potential.

An aid agency like UNRWA can only do so much to realise their aspirations, he told an audience in Egypt today. In a major speech to the American University of Cairo, Mr Hansen marked the publication of a book of photographs of the lives of the refugees by describing the development of the partnership between UNRWA and the Palestine refugees over the last five decades.

UNRWA, or ‘Al Wakala’ as the Agency is referred to in the region, is a unique institution”, said Mr Hansen. “Originally mandated to provide relief assistance to the Palestine refugees, over time it has been tasked to provide many developmental services to the refugee community.”

Hansen told his audience at the American University: “In the past fifty years, the registered refugee population has grown over four fold from around 875,000 in 1953 to 4.08 million in 2003. Meanwhile, the primary emphasis of Agency services to the refugees shifted from relief to human development. Yet, due to the ongoing strife in the occupied Palestinian territory, the Agency is forced to provide emergency relief alongside its regular programmes.

UNRWA was and remains an operational Agency. It has always emphasized creative and practical solutions to serve its beneficiaries during various crises in its areas of operations.”

He added: “UNRWA’s focus on continued provision of essential humanitarian services to the Palestine refugees should be seen in the context of its mandate to prevent conditions of starvation and distress among the refugee community and to promote the conditions of peace and stability.

The evolution and the range of its services indicate that in the absence of a just and durable solution to the refugee problem and in a context of statelessness, regional political tensions, economic marginalisation and the vulnerability that is characteristic of refugee status, UNRWA’s efforts can only develop the human potential of refugees so far.

Such efforts have helped Palestine refugees weather socio-economic and political storms over the past five decades while maintaining the barest minimum of acceptable living standards. But only a just and durable solution of the refugee problem, one that also addresses the statelessness that is the lot of the majority of Palestine refugees and the issues of occupation and settlement construction that impact on Palestine refugees in the occupied Palestinian territory, can more comprehensively address and further their development, their aspirations and their potential.”

Mr Hansen was speaking at the launch of In Hope and Despair a photographic record of life in the refugee camps by the Swedish photographer Mia Gröndahl. In Hope and Despair is published by the American University of Cairo Press. Mr Hansen also opened an exhibition of Ms Grondahl’s photography at the AUC’s Sony Gallery.