2 July 2012
“We need you”, stated Sameer Abdel Latif, a Palestine refugee from East Jerusalem, as he addressed representatives of the European Union (EU) institutions who gathered on 21 June to show their continued support and commitment to Palestinians. To commemorate World Refugee Day, UNRWA hosted a panel discussion in Brussels titled “Re-refugees?”, in co-operation with the European Commission Humanitarian and Civil Aid department (ECHO) and the United Nations Regional Information Centre (UNRIC). The discussion highlighted the threat of re-displacement and dispossession, which continue to be faced by Palestine refugees in the West Bank and Gaza some 64 years after their initial forced displacement.
This meeting took place within the framework of an ECHO-supported mission that brought three refugee representatives from the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), along with three West Bank and Gaza-based UNRWA officials, to Brussels for a series of discussions with European decision-makers and civil society. The refugee representatives provided personal insights and information to officials, in order to raise awareness of the threats currently facing their communities in the oPt, and to request EU action. The mission also sought to build on the momentum created by the EU Council Conclusions of 14 May, which reiterated the illegality of settlement-building, called for the lifting of the blockade on Gaza, and expressed the Council’s concern regarding evictions, house demolitions and the worsening living conditions of Palestinians.
The panel discussion opened with statements from the refugee representatives, each one of them highlighting the unique form that the threat of displacement and dispossession is taking in their community. These forms include land expropriation for the expansion of settlements, increased incidence of settler violence, continuous construction of the Barrier and restricted freedom of movement, discriminatory access to the planning and zoning regime, and lack of access to natural resources.
The refugees urged the immediate implementation of the Council Conclusions of 14 May, although “they should have been put into concrete action yesterday”, as Shereen Araj from the village of Al Walaja stated. Time seems to be the crucial factor, as all three refugee representatives stated they were proactively engaged in measures that were “buying time” – time they hoped the EU and others would use to create and deliver robust solutions. MEP Emer Costello concurred that time was running short, responding that “strong statements and fine resolutions are no longer sufficient” when asked by panel moderator Gie Goris, Chief Editor of MO* magazine, if Europe was doing enough. Johannes Luchner, head of ECHO’s Unit of European Neighbouring Countries, Middle East, Central and Southwest Asia, indicated that “what ECHO’s aid is doing, is to buy people some of this time.”
Since 1971, EU contributions to UNRWA have totalled over EUR 1 billion, making the EU the largest multilateral donor of UNRWA. UNRWA’s senior protection co-ordinator Mark Brailsford thanked the EU for its generous support and reiterated the critical role that this financial support continues to play in protecting refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. However, MEP Alexandra Thein stressed that “giving money is no longer enough.” Brailsford concurred, repeating a message UNRWA had delivered to officials throughout the mission: “The EU’s financial investment for refugees in the oPt should now be made complete through a concurrent political investment that delivers the changes envisioned in the 14 May Conclusions.”
Other panelists confirmed they share the concern regarding the situation on the ground in the oPt, but cautioned that the Conclusions may take some time to implement. The refugee representatives implored officials and civil society alike to take urgent action, stating that time was not on their side. “Europe is creating a time bomb that will explode in everybody’s face. We are telling you now that we are running out of options”, stated Araj.