Commissioner-General’s opening remarks at camp improvement exhibition

22 May 2012

8 May 2012
Berlin

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you, Minister Niebel, for your welcome. And thank you in particular for supporting the very special “camp improvement” programme which the German government and UNRWA have been working on for five years in the Near East, and which - through this exhibition - is now showcased and explained for the international public. The partnership between Germany and UNRWA is one of the Agency’s most valuable: a joint venture that has helped us test and implement a new approach to improving the lives of the Palestine refugees, whose human development (pending a just and durable solution to their exile) is at the heart of our Agency’s mandate.

While UNRWA has been serving refugees for over 60 years as a “temporary” organisation, the 58 refugee camps in region – now home to about a third of the almost five million refugees registered with UNRWA – have grown into overcrowded urban quarters. And unfortunately, difficult camp living conditions add to the challenges of refugee life in a region beset by conflict and instability.

Besides its core work in education, health, and poverty relief, UNRWA’s approach to improving camp conditions, for a long time, was relatively simple: when resources were available, the Agency would repair or build, adding to the increasingly complex infrastructure of refugee camps. From our work with our German partners: GIZ, the Civil Peace Service and KfW, under the umbrella of BMZ, we have learned that we can do much more to improve camps than simply building new schools, clinics, or infrastructure.

We have studied in more detail and more comprehensively the complex, inter-related elements of camp life: spatial, social, economic, and political. We have progressively better understood that the “bricks and mortar” of improving the camp environment are not just bricks and mortar. Every layer warrants exploration and consideration when we address difficult living conditions: for example, the camp economy or the need to create space for play, or the building codes, the social mores, the systems of water drainage – just to give a few examples. One has to understand that even after this long exile, refugee lives are extremely vulnerable. Any change to their environment must represent an improvement in the delicate balance of resources, security, services, and opportunities upon which refugee lives depend.

This approach is much more complicated than just building infrastructure. And it cannot succeed, as the Minister said, if the community is not in the lead at all stages of the projects. “Refugee participation” and putting refugees at the center of development is the main theme of this exhibition and one which will be debated by distinguished panellists. And though, naturally, UNRWA over the decades has constantly interacted with the refugee communities (I remind you that it is a rather unique United Nations organisation, in that our 30,000 teachers, doctors, nurses and social workers come from those communities themselves), we have had to develop new skills to ensure that their participation in planning and implementing camp improvement projects could be meaningful and concrete - not just a fashionable approach.

This has been very interesting and very humbling for us. I am proud to say that we are indeed learning to listen, to engage, to better understand, and to build our skills to do more. The reconstruction of Nahr el-Bared Camp in Northern Lebanon, for example – the single largest construction project implemented by the United Nations anywhere in the world – would not have been possible without the lessons learned elsewhere about participatory planning, made possible by German support for this programme. This exhibition shows the remarkable progress that has been achieved by dedicated teams of camp residents, urban planners and UNRWA managers, working together in six projects in the West Bank and Jordan. We are starting a new project in Lebanon soon, expanding the pilot phase to Rashidieh refugee camp, where one of our panellists was raised. As the Minister said, we hope that this exhibition, which after Berlin will move on to other cities, will become a catalyst for more support from other partners and we are especially interested to move it to the Middle East and the Gulf, where there will be interest in this approach.

It is our conviction that the impressive results you see should be expanded to all Palestine refugee communities. It is a basic human aspiration to be an active agent in one’s life, family and community. To have a say in one’s future, by the way, is the fundamental call of millions of people – especially young people - who in the past year have surprised the world in North Africa and the Middle East, and have initiated what has become known the Arab Spring. This project, with vision and with foresight, has sought to address well in advance some of the issues that women and men so far excluded and marginalised are now raising across the region. I hope I do not sound pretentious if I say that it can provide useful lessons to those seeking ways to improve governance and increase community participation.

Yet the plight of Palestine refugees is much broader, much more complex than this. Put in stark words, it will not end without a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a solution which unfortunately, these days, seems more elusive than ever. The constantly-expanding occupation of Palestinian land and the lack of unity among Palestinian leaders add to the plight of refugees. But while the search for peace (hopefully) continues, it would be adding wrong to wrong not to help refugees improve their lives, even in the suspended state of exile in which they live. And this is not just a material endeavour. With the tools, the space, and the voice which Germany and UNRWA wish to create through this project, Palestine refugees - like people anywhere - will seize the opportunities and develop the responsibilities that attend decision-making. In so doing, they will ensure not only that there is less hardship in their lives, but also - and this, Minister, ladies and gentlemen, is of the greatest importance for them, and for us – we will ensure that in those same lives there is more confidence, dignity, and hope.

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$ 68.2 million.

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