Commissioner-General's statement at Ministerial Conference: "Refugees in the Muslim World"

14 May 2012

Organised by the Government of Turkmenistan, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and UNHCR
(Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, 11-12 May 2012)

Foreign Ministers of Turkmenistan and Palestine,
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me join other speakers in thanking the President and Government of Turkmenistan for hosting this important conference, and in congratulating the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and UNHCR for organising it.

As you know, UNRWA is unique in the UN family as its mandate is specific to one population: nearly five million Palestine refugees, mostly descendants of those who fled Palestine in 1948 and now live in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, and generously hosted by these countries for decades. They comprise a significant proportion of the refugee population in OIC member states, and of the refugee population worldwide. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that at 64 years, theirs is the longest current refugee exile. The political and financial implications are clear and the moral responsibility to bring this situation to resolution is more pressing than ever, especially at this time, when the focus of international assistance is on other crises, and when the stagnation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process makes such a solution appear unfortunately very remote.

UNRWA’s assistance to Palestine refugees over the last six decades has undergone considerable transformation, from focus on relief to a population housed in tents, to a much more complex network of services both in and outside of camps. Some, like basic education and community health, are parallel to host government services. More recent innovations include a highly successful micro-finance programme, and a participatory approach to infrastructure improvement in camps, which are now dense urban quarters. None of these activities affect in any way the status and rights of refugees as such - they will remain refugees, let me stress, until a just solution is found according to UN resolutions and their aspirations.

In fact, we place particular importance on UNRWA’s obligation to protect and promote refugee rights. In addition to our regular programmes, we actively advocate for Palestinian rights, along with the organisation that represents refugees politically, the PLO. This is particularly critical in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and in blockaded Gaza. The occupation and its apparatus are daily encroaching on the rights of individuals, families, and the Palestinian people as a whole. The stalled peace process does not mean that the situation is static. Quite to the contrary: rights continue to be eroded by tactics of attrition and alienation that prevent physical movement, that block educational opportunities, that quash economic potential, that prevent the realisation of self-determination, whether individual or national. Palestine refugees feel physically, politically and psychologically choked, and they are alarmed and angered by the difficulties encountered by UNRWA in trying to fulfil their basic needs or help them realise their aspirations.

In this context, we are acutely aware that in addition to ensuring access to essential services, UNRWA’s role must be to help refugees develop the assets and tools they require for the future. In the face of a stagnating political process, it is all the more important - in addition to ensuring humanitarian relief where circumstances demand, and to rebuilding camp infrastructure where it has been damaged or destroyed - that our assistance create capacity and opportunities, particularly among youth. We have decided that this will be our special focus this year.

And it was with this in mind that we gathered stakeholders in Brussels in March to discuss the needs and ambitions of refugee youth. Stakeholders included 24 young representatives from refugee communities from all UNRWA fields of operation. There was overwhelming consensus that the involvement and participation of youth is essential to creating a stable and productive future for them and their families. Their intelligence, and enthusiasm, as well as their insistence and impatience resonated in all discussions.

I am proud to have two of these young people here with us today. We are grateful to the conference organisers who saw the great benefit of letting Palestinian refugee youth participate in the conference. Their names are Yasmeen Rabbah from Gaza City and Tarek Hmeid from Beddawi Camp in Lebanon. They are in the audience and will take the floor a bit later. I hope many of you will have a chance afterwards to speak to them directly, to hear their views and learn more about the challenges faced by Palestine refugee youth. Theirs, ladies and gentlemen, are the voices that are the critical part of any discussion about Palestinian lives and the Palestinian future. And they are - I can assure you - absolutely convincing.

Much of the recent change in the Arab World is a product of the human need to forge and build one’s own future. When youth have space and voice to develop themselves and are able to see their hopes come to fruition, the potential for economic prosperity and political stability is much greater. Youth potential is one of the main assets that can lead the Arab and Islamic World into sustained prosperity and peace. And it is within this framework that we see our efforts in UNRWA towards building the human potential of Palestine refugees.

We are extremely grateful for the support that makes our services to, and our advocacy on behalf of Palestinians possible. Meetings like this are important to raise understanding of, and support for our work. We have many faithful donors in the Islamic world, including the Islamic Development Bank, which has facilitated the attendance of Yasmeen and Tarek, the Saudi Fund for Development, the Kuwait Fund, the Government of Iraq, and several foundations in the United Arab Emirates as well as the UAE Government, the Government of Turkey and its institutions, and the Government of Qatar.

Yet, there is much more to be done. We have ongoing education reforms that will better prepare children and youth to negotiate an increasingly challenging world. Critical projects such as refugee housing in Gaza, projects in Area C of the West Bank and in East Jerusalem - projects that will directly support Palestine refugees subjected to pressure by expanding Israeli settlements and increasing obstacles - all these require urgent funding. We have increasing needs in Syria as refugees fall into economic hardship as a result of events there. Most importantly, running what are – for all intents and purposes – public services to a growing population of Palestine refugees, of the quality and with the predictability that they require, on yearly, scarce, and voluntary contributions, is a constant struggle.

We know that we must not falter because Palestine refugees depend on our efforts. But it cannot be our efforts alone. The international community ultimately determines the fate of the refugees. While the search for a political solution will hopefully resume - and this, ladies and gentlemen, is the most urgent task - the international community must continue to support the refugees. OIC countries also have an absolutely critical role to play in ensuring that their Palestinian brethren have the human and political opportunities they deserve. Palestinian assets - political, economic and territorial - are being diminished and drained. We must work together urgently to build the potential of a strong people and contribute to the viability of a just cause.

Thank you.

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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