Refugees cannot be ignored: UNRWA

06 June 2011

4 June 2011
Daily Star, Lebanon
Patrick Galey

Displaced Palestinians will become a destabilising force in the region if their demands continue to be ignored, the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency warned Friday.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi, on a two-day visit to Beirut, said that the deadly clashes of 15 May, which saw Israel shoot dead 11 Palestinian protesters and wound more than a hundred in south Lebanon, were a warning to the world that the issue over the right of return was not going away.

“We should learn lessons from 15 May. [Palestinians] are not going to stay quiet. They have rights that they want to talk about so we need to help them, otherwise they will not become a positive constituency, working toward peace, [but] they will become an element of instability,” Grandi told reporters at UNRWA’s Beirut headquarters.

“This shows how important it is not to forget the refugees. This is a political issue; clearly the responsibility of the parties to the conflict. It’s important that the issue is not delayed, because these demonstrations … are the proof that it is not resolved.”

When asked about his thoughts on forthcoming Palestinian protests in Lebanon – with one originally scheduled for Sunday subsequently being cancelled – Grandi responded: “It is not up to UNRWA to determine how these things are managed.

This is a matter for the Lebanese state, [U.N. peacekeepers] and the organisers. Refugees, of course, have the right to express their claims for rights but it is also very important that people are not exposed to unnecessary risk.”

Grandi met with several high-ranking political and military representatives during his two-day visit, including President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati, Army Commander General Jean Kahwagi and Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai.

The Commissioner-General said he was encouraged by word from political advisers that the Lebanese Army would consider easing its access restrictions on the northern Nahr el-Bared camp.

However, the UNRWA head warned that Lebanon’s ongoing political crisis was having a damaging affect on its Palestinian community.

“Like everyone else we are concerned about the protracted length of this political transition and, even with respect to the refugees issue, this has consequences.

Many of the things that we must do to help the refugees require a government to help us and be an interlocutor and because of the transition this is not possible,” he said.

Grandi said his organisation – and in particular UNRWA’s Beirut field office – was doing an exemplary job in seeking to care for the needs of Lebanon’s more than 420,000 Palestinian refugees on an increasingly tight budget.

“UNRWA in Lebanon has come under a lot of criticism and some of it, I must say, is understandable. The refugees are frustrated by the difficult situation they are in. I think some criticism has been excessive and has been personalised,” Grandi said.

He detailed the prolonged funding crisis his organisation is facing, disclosing that UNRWA’s worldwide activities are at risk of being hampered due to a budget shortfall of US$ 65-70 million.

In addition, the reconstruction of Nahr el-Bared, which was almost totally destroyed during 2007 fighting between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam militants, could be hit if donor support doesn’t increase, Grandi said.

“It is still a big shortfall and that’s why we are so handicapped in our work to improve conditions [for Palestinians],” he said.

Grandi appealed to Arab donors to pledge more for Nahr el-Bared reconstruction which, under UNRWA’s guidance, will have allowed roughly 400 families to return to their homes by the end of August.

“Western donors have made many contributions but now the responsibility is on Arab donors to fulfil the promises that were made in [2008]. I am really disappointed that after so many appeals Arab donors still give us so little money, especially for our core activities,” he said.

He added that the current period of regional social change is an opportunity to address Palestinians’ rights: “I hope that the impact [on Palestinians] will be positive. They, like many other people in the Arab world have hopes and frustrations … the lesson … is that we cannot ignore these hopes and frustrations.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Daily Star

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