“Permanent status issue” of refugees

17 February 2010

International Meeting in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace
The urgency of addressing the “permanent status issue” of refugees

Qawra, Malta, 12 and 13 February 2010

UNRWA statement
(Delivered by Michael Kingsley-Nyinah, Director of the Executive Office)

Excellencies, distinguished colleagues,

On behalf of UNRWA Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi, I thank the Palestinian Rights Committee and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean for inviting UNRWA to contribute to this discussion. Our thanks also go to our hosts, the Government of Malta, for sharing with us the hospitality of this beautiful island.

Since taking up his functions in January this year, UNRWA’s Commissioner-General has signaled his readiness to maintain the momentum of protection and human rights advocacy, in a manner consistent with UNRWA’s humanitarian and human development mission. This role includes highlighting the situation faced by Palestine refugees in the occupied Palestinian territory and across the region, as well as calling attention to their entitlements under international law and practice. UNRWA’s responsibilities also entail encouraging States to respect and comply with human rights and international humanitarian law obligations as these pertain to the situation of Palestine refugees.

It is in the spirit of these mandated roles that UNRWA presents to this distinguished gathering its perspectives on the Palestine refugee issue – an issue which we believe has its proper place within the framework of the search for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From UNRWA’s vantage point, the need to confront the refugee question is immediate, immense, and deserving of urgent international attention.

I shall begin with general observations about the consequences of refugee situations and the resulting imperative that conflict resolution processes must address refugee issues stemming from the conflicts in question. I shall argue that the link between genuine conflict resolution and refugee issues applies to Palestine refugees and I shall briefly explore the implications of excluding the Palestine refugee question from the current search for peace in the Middle East. I will conclude by suggesting some areas to which the international community must turn its attention if the refugee issue is to be placed where it belongs, namely at the core of the peace process.

Refugee movements occur when the protection that people should enjoy in their places of origin is disrupted by persecution, armed conflict or other upheaval, threatening lives and liberty and compelling them to seek safety in countries other than their own. In that sense, refugees are both a symptom of malaise in the state of human rights in their places of origin and a consequence of those protection failures. I draw particular attention to the several human and international consequences that flow from involuntary flight, all of which are aggravated in proportion to factors such as the circumstances triggering flight and precluding return, the duration of a given refugee situation, and the numerical size of the refugee movement in question.

One of these consequences is the sense of disorientation and dispossession suffered by refugees, individually and as a community. Refugees are cast adrift from the anchors of home, historical rootedness, livelihood and belonging. In place of these markers of identity and human security, they live with a lingering awareness of injury, a psyche of dislocation and an overwhelming longing for that which is lost. Many are often vulnerable to poverty and violence and they survive precariously, without guarantees of state protection or inclusive citizenship.

Beyond these human consequences, refugee situations also unsettle the often fragile equilibrium of international relations and trigger issues of regional and international concern. In several instances, including the conflicts in Sierra Leone, Iraq, Haiti in 1993, Afghanistan and Rwanda, the UN Security Council has regarded various combinations of armed conflict, human rights abuses and large refugee movements as threats to international peace and security.

Another notable consequence is the impact of refugee situations on host countries and communities. Countries that host refugees grapple with substantial financial and economic effects. They may also confront new social and demographic forces which often exert complex influences on sensitive national and regional interests. Moreover, the responsibilities of the international community and its diverse actors are invariably engaged by refugee situations. States mobilize as financial donors and initiate action in the political and diplomatic spheres, while aid agencies strive to mitigate human suffering within their respective mandates. Inevitably, international efforts to meet the challenges of refugee situations absorb substantial financial and human resources which might otherwise have been expended to advance long-term development goals for the benefit of all.

When we consider these and other implications of refugee situations, we begin to see the force of the argument that any attempt to resolve a conflict must include attention to the related situation. This argument is driven by compelling logic and is supported by the broad sweep of human experience. In our modern era of international relations, refugee issues have generally been acknowledged to deserve a significant place on the agenda of efforts to resolve conflict and achieve security and peace. Indeed, there have been instances where the UN Security Council took the view that durable solutions for the displaced were an essential prerequisite for restoring regional peace.

The factual and policy nexus between refugee issues and conflict resolution is reinforced by a legal and protection dimension which takes as its point of departure the human impact of exile I mentioned earlier. Whenever forced movement occurs, you have human rights violations. And where there are violations, there are entitlements to redress under international law. Redress for the losses sustained as result of conflict and conflict-induced exile should therefore be a key plank in the drive for a negotiated peace. Seeking to reverse wrongs, remedy rights violations and allay perceptions of injustice can only bolster the chances of securing lasting peace.

Excellencies, distinguished colleagues:

The connection between effective conflict resolution and addressing refugee issues has been demonstrated time and time again in conflicts which have been settled with the help of international mediation. We hold the view that the Israeli-Palestinian context is no exception. The human impact - the sense of loss - is still strongly felt across Palestine refugee communities. In common with refugees elsewhere, this has left Palestine refugees with enduring nostalgia, underpinned by a perpetual sense of being out of place and out of time.

For refugees residing in the occupied Palestinian territory, the awareness of deprivation is sharpened and entrenched by the frequent experience of armed conflict and its effects, by multiple displacement episodes, by dire humanitarian conditions and by severe restrictions on movement and fundamental freedoms. Palestine refugees in Lebanon have also been through more than their fair share of armed conflict over the years. Despite UNRWA’s efforts and the Lebanese government’s steps towards expanding socio-economic opportunities for refugees, abject poverty and wretched living conditions remain for most of them, serving to cement further the vulnerability of their communities.

Refugees residing in Jordan and Syria enjoy a wide range of rights and freedoms that have helped to mitigate the hardships of displacement. Many are granted economic rights and access to the employment market, and the stability of these countries means they are spared the trauma of armed conflict. Among the relatively less disadvantaged are the refugees in Jordan who enjoy the privileges of special categories of Jordanian nationality.

The advantages of residing in Jordan and Syria are welcome and beneficial. Yet they do not obscure the vulnerability inherent in the refugee label. Neither do they detract from the distinctness of thee refugee identity.

The refugees and host communities share an implicit understanding that the sojourn of Palestine refugees is temporary – and that this transient state is unchanged by the lengthy duration of their exile. As a corollary, “refugee consciousness” is strong among Palestinians, including the younger generation. The passing years have left intact a sense of injustice, a demand for acknowledgement and a desire for their travail to be justly resolved. Across the Middle East, Palestine refugees define themselves (and are defined by others) by reference to the historical experience of exile.

My remarks so far have established that refugee situations are among the most substantial symptoms and consequences of conflict, and that efforts to resolve conflict must proceed in tandem with action to confront refugee issues. These considerations raise two questions for our attention. To what extent is the Palestine refugee issue reflected in the search for a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And what role can the international community play to ensure that refugee issues are give their proper place on the peace agenda? Allow me to offer some thoughts on these matters.

With regard to the place of the refugee issue in the peace process, the facts are well known. Immediately following the events of 1948, the refugee question was at the forefront of global mediation efforts under the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine. From the late 1980’s onwards, the tide of attention turned to other aspects of the conflict, as various incarnations of diplomatic activity centered, correctly, on the goal of two States living side by side in mutual peace and security, but without clarity as to the place of Palestine refugees in this vision.

In the course of this evolution, the refugee issue was assigned to “permanent status negotiations” alongside questions related to “…Jerusalem, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbors, and other issues of common interest”. According to the 1993 Declaration of Principles, these issues were to be addressed by the parties at a later stage.

In the wake of these developments, “permanent status negotiations” have been slow to progress, leaving the refugee issue indefinitely in suspense. The result, the views of refugees too often go unheeded. Their interests and concerns remain overlooked.

This approach serves no one’s interest. We may be paying a heavy price for embracing an exclusive approach which disallows Palestine refugees a voice in the quest for a peaceful settlement.

Distinguished colleagues:

If we appreciate the nexus between conflict resolution and the refugee issue, we can better accept the logic of inverting the conventional wisdom so that the admittedly difficult questions of displacement can share center stage with other pressing items and transitional details. UNRWA appeals to each of you and to the international community to give these points consideration in revisiting the current approach to negotiations.

We call for a process that is inclusive in its representation and comprehensive in its coverage of priority issues, including the question of Palestine refugees. We call attention to the fact that under universal refugee protection principles, informed individual choice is the foundation on which durable solutions for refugees are implemented and redress provided, and we maintain that this principle should equally benefit Palestine refugees. Given the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian context, informed choice must be the essence of any effort to sift through and clarify the range of varying Palestinian expectations and rights. With these precepts in view, we support the initiation of arrangements to ascertain and record refugee interests and concerns.

Such arrangements should include mechanisms that will project the refugee perspective into the negotiation arena in a manner that protects and promotes their ability to exercise informed choices. We acknowledge that a process inclusive of the refugee constituency would pose significant challenges. Yet we believe that those challenges are surmountable, provided we remain guided by relevant principles and by the benefits of enhanced legitimacy which an inclusive approach will bring to the negotiation process and to its outcomes.

Those benefits should not be underestimated. The refugees of whom we speak constitute a substantial reservoir of human capital across the Middle East, and they stand poised to contribute significantly to the socio-economic viability of the region and of a Palestinian State. Those registered with UNRWA are currently around 4.7 million strong, with an additional four to six million estimated to reside in the Palestinian Diaspora. Given their numbers and human development potential, Palestine refugees are a formidable constituency for peace with a substantial stake in the Israeli-Palestinian future. Excluding the refugee voice disenfranchises the refugee constituency, which means we forego a wealth of insights and risk the credibility and sustainability of the peace process.

Palestine refugees – their human rights, their aspirations and their concerns – are bound to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in complex and profound ways that place them in a position to influence the realization of durable solutions. The Palestine refugee presence is a stark reality, a reality whose significance and power genuine peacemaking efforts can no longer afford to ignore. Recognizing and harnessing the refugee constituency is a necessity that is consistent with principle, and which could also pay handsome dividends to the credibility and efficacy of the search for peace.

For over sixty-years, Palestine refugees have endured the indignities and insecurities of exile in an environment often steeped in instability and conflict. As an international community, we often proclaim our commitment to address their anguish and to resolve their plight, and we profess allegiance to the UN Charter objective of settling disputes by peaceful means “…in conformity with the principles of justice and international law”.

Distinguished colleagues:

If we are serious about these solemn commitments, and truly devoted to the cause of peace, then the least we can do is to give refugee issues prominence in the peace process, and afford Palestine refugees the dignity of being heard.

Background Information

UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and is mandated to provide assistance and protection to a population of some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip to achieve their full potential in human development, pending a just solution to their plight. UNRWA’s services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and microfinance.

Financial support to UNRWA has not kept pace with an increased demand for services caused by growing numbers of registered refugees, expanding need, and deepening poverty. As a result, the Agency's General Fund (GF), supporting UNRWA’s core activities and 97 per cent reliant on voluntary contributions, has begun each year with a large projected deficit. Currently the deficit stands at US$ 56 million.

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