Interview on BBC Radio World Today to mark World Refugee Day

20 June 2011

20 June 2011

Well joining me now from Jerusalem is UNRWA Spokesman, Chris Gunness. Chris, UNRWA has put on a short film competition and is premiering the results tonight in Ramallah to mark World Refugee Day, what were you attempting to achieve in this competition?

By putting on this competition with the support of one of our largest donors, the European Union, we are hoping to achieve two things:
Firstly, to have the refugees’ voices heard. This is a forgotten and dispossessed people and they have a voice with which the peacemakers need to engage. So through these films, we hope that the voice and the vision of the refugees can shine through.

Secondly, we wanted to humanise and showcase the talents of the refugees. So what you have here are beautiful and rather moving films about the existences of the refugees – first prize for example about a family returning to its house in the Nahr el-Bared camp in northern Lebanon, which was destroyed in mid 2007. And the third prize film I particularly like which simply features faces in the camps in Syria – which considering what’s been happening there, is remarkable .. but the Syria film is beautiful, moving but also very humanizing, which is what this competition is all about.

Q: These refugees find themselves at the centre of the world’s most intractable conflict, they’ve lived stateless and in exile for 63 years, what’s their future likely to be?

Well if you look at what is happening in the Middle East with the Arab spring in which people are crying out against social exclusion, and crying out for justice and dignity, then one can only hope that things will change for the Palestine refugees who have been denied justice and dignity for far too long, for 63 years. And we have seen stirrings of that with two demonstrations on Israel’s borders recently.

But one has to be empirical here and admit that if you look at a place like Gaza where there about a million refugees, and if you contrast the levels of suffering with the failure of the international community to prevent the fighting, the violence, the collective punishment, the blockade then one has to be slightly more realistic, but I refuse to be pessimistic.

Moreover one of the lessons of the Arab spring, and indeed the regime change that saw the end of the Cold War, is that when change does come, it is often very quick and unexpected. The vast Soviet empire collapsed in just a matter of months as long-held assumptions suddenly evaporated, so perhaps all is not lost for the Palestine refugees, though it’s very hard to predict how and when change might come for them.

Q: There’s increasing talk of a Palestinian state being recognised by the UN in September, will that change their situation?

Well we can only hope that their situation will change, because one thing is for sure and that’s having nearly five million people, stateless, dispossessed and living in exile in a region wracked by instability can only make that region more unstable. But I would go further and utter a truth that rarely dares speak its name and that is that until the refugees’ voices have been heard, their grievances addressed, there cannot be a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

So though its difficult to say where the recognition debate is headed, it’s a fact that’s rarely admitted but quite indubitably the case, which is that it makes no sense to force the refugee issue back into the future as some problematic thing that cannot be resolved by the parties to the conflict.

What’s needed to break what the UN Secretary General calls the “unsustainable status quo in this conflict” is courage and vision among world leaders, of the sort that world leaders have shown historically during periods of great change. They need the courage and vision to grasp the refugee issue and resolve it, because failure to do so means further instability in which peace is likely, sadly, to remain illusive. So the current climate offers risks certainly, but also an opportunity for peace if the courage and vision is there.

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