UN and individual countries pledge to never abandon the Palestinian refugees

Palestinian mother walks with her child through the rubble left by Israeli bulldozers and tanks in Jenin refugee camp in April 2002 (Charity Crouse)


GENEVA -– A two-day conference co-hosted by the Swiss Government and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which addressed the humanitarian needs of 4 million Palestinian refugees, concluded today in Geneva.

At the end of the conference, its Chairman, Walter Fust, Director-General of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, read out a Chairman’s Summary which expressed to the Palestinian refugees that the international community would not abandon them and that their own participation in the conference sent a strong signal that the international community, along with UNRWA and the host countries, remained determined to continue supporting UNRWA’s essential role until a just and lasting solution was found to the question of the Palestinian refugees, based on United Nations resolutions.  Therefore, the conference also intended to be the starting point of a new humanitarian mobilization in support of the Palestinian refugees.

The Chairman’s Summary said that the situation of Palestinian refugees remained a source of great concern deserving renewed attention from the international community.  The situation of greatest concern as regards to Palestinian refugees was in the occupied Palestinian territory, where they faced the negative impacts of a protracted conflict.

Mr. Fust said that the delegates touched upon a series of key issues deemed by participants as priority areas requiring attention and long-term development.  Among these issues were the need for the respect of international humanitarian law, freedom of movement for refugees, emergency re-housing, and improved efforts on community development and access to employment.

Several of the delegates stressed a need for detailed information about the present protection needs of vulnerable groups, in particular children, the Chairman’s Summary said.  Respect for international humanitarian law was considered to be an essential condition for ensuring a safe environment for the delivery of services to Palestinian refugees and for protecting the integrity of UNRWA.  Moreover, participants placed a heavy emphasis on improving the physical infrastructure of schools and applauded UNRWA for achievements it had made in the area of health care.

Delegates from over 90 countries and organizations participated in the conference.

In his keynote address to the Conference, Peter Hansen, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, said that over the decades and in the face of wars, conflict and ensuring turbulence, UNRWA had had to deal with waves of first-time, second-time and third-time refugees.  At times, financial contributions had not covered even the minimal needs of UNRWA.  These shortfalls, he said, had affected the refugee community in many ways and were a massive violation of the principles of humanitarian relief.  The situation in which UNRWA and Palestinian refugee communities found themselves in today should be seen in the context of an inexorable and escalating worsening in their daily lives.

Delivering a message on behalf of Micheline Calmy-Rey, the Head of the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs, Jean Marc Boulgaris, Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the United Nations Office at Geneva, highlighted UNRWA’s unique mandate given its diversity of responsibilities in areas covering education, health services and in providing a host of social services.  Some 500,000 Palestinian children went to school every day in schools administered by UNRWA, the message recalled.  Among other things, it also highlighted the important role the conference had to give to human rights in a humanitarian dimension and called for a strengthening of partnerships with UNRWA.

During the course of the discussions, presentations were made by refugee school children and community representatives via a video link to Amman, Jordan, who echoed their concerns and needs to the Geneva audience.  They expressed their hope for peace and stability in the region.

Although the meeting was not a pledging conference, financial pledges were also made by some delegations in the amount of $10.5 million.  These pledges came from the Governments of Algeria, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, and from the OPEC Fund for International Development.  France, Sweden, Norway, the European Commission and the United States all announced that they would make additional financial pledges shortly.

In his closing remarks, Mr. Hansen expressed that the conference had succeeded in achieving its stated goals and had laid the foundation for a renewed commitment for the needs of the Palestinian refugees which were now greater than they had been in recent years.

CHAIRMAN’S SUMMARY

WALTER FUST, Chairman of the Conference and Director-General of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, read out the Chairman’s Summary which said that the situation of the Palestinian refugees remained a source of great concern deserving renewed attention from the international community.  The situation of greatest concern as regards to Palestinian refugees was in the occupied Palestinian territory where they faced the negative impacts of a protracted conflict.  They were at times exposed to crossfire, major loss of life, damage to property, and difficulties in gaining access to essential services provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) or the Palestinian Authority.  This had contributed to a general context of deep economic crisis leading to spiralling levels of poverty for large parts of the population.

Work in the conference workshops enabled participants to come up with some encouraging approaches and solutions to the challenges faced by the Palestinian refugee population.  Workshop participants were able to identify key problems facing UNRWA and the Palestinian refugees and to analyse many of the critical issues that required urgent attention.  The workshops formulated joint recommendations on how to best address those important humanitarian issues in the areas where action was required.

The conference emphasized the need to enhance partnerships between UNRWA, its donors, the host countries, United Nations agencies and other humanitarian organizations present in the field.  While UNRWA was the key actor for Palestinian refugees, further strengthening its cooperation with all service providers should be encouraged.  Ensuring better respect for international humanitarian law was underlined as being a collective responsibility of the international community.  The events that recently took place in Rafahunderlined once more the extreme vulnerability of the Palestinian refugees living in the occupied Palestinian territory, and served to remind conference participants of the imperative of ensuring effective protection for the Palestinian refugees and for the civilian population more generally.

Freedom of movement was identified as a priority and cross-cutting concern.  It was noted that UNRWA’s task would become impossible unless major improvements were achieved with regard to full, safe and unfettered access.  It was furthermore noted that increased financial contributions could only have a real and lasting impact on this basis.  Similarly, stakeholders had expressed concern as to restrictions that hindered refugees’ access to UNRWA’s services and disrupted economic activities.

The issue of protection was raised as a central theme in many discussions, although UNRWA did not have a specific protection mandate.  Participants stressed that detailed data and research about the present protection needs, in particular of vulnerable groups, including children, was required.  Participants expressed great concern with regard to large-scale destruction of infrastructure and housing which had recently caused emergency situations, particularly in Gaza.  As a consequence, UNRWA faced the challenge of stepping up efforts to provide emergency re-housing, which had become an important component of its emergency operations.  Improving housing and infrastructure in refugee camps should be given higher priority with a view to addressing overcrowding, poor environmental and sanitary conditions, and a lack of recreational space.

Education was considered key for ensuring a better future for Palestinian refugee children and youth.  Participants placed heavy emphasis on improving the physical infrastructure of schools, the learning conditions for children, and the working conditions for UNRWA teachers.  Moreover, health care was identified as an area in which UNRWA did remarkably well.  However, participants felt that the available statistics may not give an accurate picture of the health status of Palestine refugees, in particular in the occupied Palestinian territory, with respect to the mental and psychosocial health of refugee children.

Community development came up as a topic requiring a comprehensive and innovative approach.  It was suggested that an effective system of data collection and implementation indicators be established to identify gaps and monitor progress as a management tool in the planning process.  Furthermore, employment creation and income generation, as well as access to micro finance and credit, were identified as, respectively, efficient tools and important pre-requisites for addressing economic hardship and for enhancing a developmental approach to socio-economic challenges.

Many participants referred to the generosity of host countries towards Palestinian refugees and UNRWA, and commented on the generally excellent partnership and collaboration between UNRWA and host countries.

In conclusion, the Chairman’s Summary expressed to the Palestinian refugees that the international community would not abandon them and that their own participation in the conference sent a strong signal that the international community, along with UNRWA and the host countries, remained determined to continue supporting UNRWA’s essential role until a just and lasting solution was found to the question of the Palestinian refugees based on United Nations resolutions.  Therefore, the conference also intended to be the starting point of a new humanitarian mobilization in support of the Palestinian refugees.

STATEMENTS

PETER HANSEN, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, recalled the creation of UNRWA as a temporary programme to deal with refugees who had lost their homes and/or livelihood in that part of Mandatory Palestine which became the State of Israel.  Some 55 years later, UNRWA was still working with a mandate to provide “relief” and “works” assistance and support to a Palestinian refugee population which had grown to 4 million registered refugees.  Over the decades, in the face of wars, conflict and ensuring turbulence, UNRWA had had to deal with waves of first-time, second-time and third-time refugees.  At times, financial contributions had not covered even the minimal needs of UNRWA.  These shortfalls had affected the refugee community in many ways and were a massive violation of the principles of humanitarian relief.  Among other things, they had led to setbacks in the benefits and achievements gained slowly and painstakingly over the years and had furthered the perception in the refugee community that the world paid less attention to their claims and needs.

The situation in which UNRWA and Palestinian refugee communities found themselves in today should be seen in the context of an inexorable and escalating worsening in their daily lives.  To illustrate the different consequences which had affected Palestinian refugee communities, Mr. Hansen recounted a series of events dating back to the 1950s which had had an impact on these populations.  Among them, the war of 1967 which led to the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; the subsequent war of 1973, witnessing further refugee displacement; the first intifada in the 1980s; the Gulf War of 1991; and recent events in the past few years which had led to a “drastic worsening in every sector of the life of the Palestinian refugee communities”.

The Palestinian refugee population was at a crucial juncture with a cohort of refugees in their prime enjoying a good level of health and literacy.  Mr. Hansen added that Palestinian youth had been kept in mind when UNRWA had developed its vision for the coming years.  That vision aimed to ensure that refugees of the upcoming generation were well prepared to play their rightful role in the socio-economic development of their community and that their rights as refugees were safeguarded for as long as it took to find a just and lasting solution to the conflict, among other things.

JEAN MARC BOULGARIS, Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the United Nations Office at Geneva, delivered a message on behalf of Micheline Calmy-Rey, Federal Councillor and Head of the Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, which underscored the purpose of the conference to raise awareness about the needs and hopes of the Palestinian refugees and to rally support for UNRWA and other key actors to meet those needs.  For more than 50 years, UNRWA had been supporting these needs, yet it still needed the support of the international community, both politically and financially.  The Agency’s mandate was unique given its diversity of responsibilities in areas covering education, health services and in providing a host of social services.

Some 500,000 Palestinian children went to school every day in schools administered by UNRWA, the message recalled.  The Agency’s mission was made all the more difficult given the political and security conditions in the region.  Partnerships with international agencies and with non-governmental organizations were invaluable in order for UNRWA to carry out its tasks.  The topic of this conference was particularly meaningful in that it expressed the hope that these partnerships would be strengthened further.  Moreover, the conference must provide an opportunity to the refugees to believe in a better and peaceful future for themselves and their children and was paving the way to build that road to the future.

In conclusion, Ms. Calmy-Rey’s message highlighted the important role the conference had to give to human rights in a humanitarian dimension while expressing the hope that the voice of the conference would be heard loud and clear.

Related Links

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