Constant challenges in an evolving regional context

22 November 2011

An UNRWA perspective on the state of Palestine refugees

Keynote address
Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General, UNRWA

21 November 2011
Birzeit University Conference:
Palestinian refugees: Different Generations but One Identity

Mr. Vice President, Roger, Asem, Colleagues, and Friends,

I am truly honoured to have been invited to deliver the opening address in a conference about Palestine refugees, a community in whose history UNRWA has such a special place. And I am particularly happy to be back at this University, a citadel of Palestinian and Arab learning, and a little bit of home for UNRWA too. In this respect, I am pleased that, as announced, the Ibrahim Abu Lughod Institute of International Studies at Birzeit University and UNRWA will sign today a Memorandum of Understanding, aimed at strengthening our cooperation and furthering our shared objectives.

My sincere appreciation goes to you, distinguished scholars present here, for your dedication in bringing the power of academic research and scrutiny to our common quest to improve the well-being and protection of the refugees. This conference presents an opportunity to share UNRWA’s assessment of the complex and often traumatic realities that refugees face, while reflecting on the indivisible rights to which they are entitled, now – wherever they reside – and in the context of a solution to their plight. That solution must be based on the fundamental principle of inclusive justice. Anything less – that is, any actions or initiatives that exclude or deny refugee rights, and fail to bring closure to their long suffering – can be neither just nor lasting.

Let me add here that I am happy so many students are on hand this morning to share in our discussion.

The plight of Palestine refugees is linked to the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with which it shares an aura of intractability acquired over repeated wars and countless political crises, interspersed with numerous but - so far - vain attempts at finding solutions. The international community, having been unable to act as impartial broker between the parties, bears considerable responsibility in the grave political failure which the Middle East peace processes have displayed until now. This among other things has generated immense frustration among Palestinians. For Palestine refugees, in addition to the repeated disillusionment of failed peace attempts, a sense of exclusion from these efforts has further increased anger and anxiety about their future. I have heard very often refugees say that after more than 60 years of exile they feel forgotten and ignored.

True, Palestine refugees have enjoyed remarkable hospitality over the decades, especially in Jordan and Syria; and have received substantial international support, through UNRWA and in many other ways, though assistance - because of financial difficulties - has never been able to meet all of their needs. Refugees have also lived in ever-changing and often very threatening environments, shaped by local political, social and economic forces that constantly interact with powerful external actors. These changing contexts, in which at times their own displacement has played a role, has not served their interests or brought them any closer to fulfilling their main aspiration for a just solution, even if they have made strides over the long-term in developing their potential and in making key contributions to the peaceful development of their communities and of the region. Sadly, since 1948, a significant feature of the refugee condition has been accumulating vulnerability, and being vulnerable and exposed has been a common experience, regrettably, for all refugees in the region.

The dispersion of refugees, principally within the areas in which UNRWA operates – Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the occupied Palestinian territory – has thrust them into the volatile fault lines of ethnicity and religion, making them susceptible to the insecurities of the communities in which they live. With each round of violence, new layers of pain have been added to an injured people, whose expulsion in 1948 had already stripped them of any fundamental sense of security and belonging.

Exposure to violence is the most obvious of refugee vulnerabilities, but other, different types of exclusion – political, social, legal, economic – have hemmed many refugees into lives of endemic poverty, with limited opportunities to develop themselves and their communities. Outside the occupied Palestinian territory this is especially acute in Lebanon, where refugees are barred from most formal sector employment, from legally owning property and from regular access to public education or health services besides those offered by UNRWA, or by Palestinian institutions such as the Palestine Red Crescent Society. To appreciate the end result of such policies, one need only stroll through one of the camps in the outskirts of Beirut – Burj al-Barajneh or Chatila, for example, where tens of thousands live in cramped and unsanitary conditions. The lively richness of social life in the camps – a source of resilience that sustains the refugees – cannot conceal or erase the squalor and sense of desperation that is evident in every alley.

Even where hosts have offered Palestine refugees an exemplary range of rights and freedoms, including access to socio-economic opportunities, there remains the spectre of insecurity and exclusion. In Jordan, so far the most stable of the host countries, there is nevertheless a refugee underclass – including among others 130,000 Palestinians who were displaced twice, first to Gaza in 1948, and again to Jordan in 1967 – that face barriers to entering the job market, owning property and accessing public services. Their poverty rate of 64% is far higher than the national average, but opportunities to work their way out of exclusion and marginality are limited.

Another, more urgent example of vulnerability is occurring in Syria. I must clarify that in spite of the onset of violent unrest in mid-March, Palestine refugees have not been direct targets of hostile action. However, there have been episodes where they have been seriously affected by the situation. In Yarmouk in June, Hama in July and Latakia in August, for example, the violence extended into areas inhabited by refugees, sometimes with tragic consequences. Our own assessment is that these were incidents - not a pattern. But while UNRWA hopes that refugees will continue to be spared the worst, events in Syria are proof that exposure to violence and other vulnerabilities are never far away in the lives of Palestine refugees in the Middle East.

But it is above all here, in the occupied Palestinian territory that Palestinians and Palestine refugees see their rights and their dignity subjected to the most severe violations. Almost every aspect of their social, economic and political life has been exposed to the Israeli occupation and its coercive structures of deprivation. Palestinians (including refugees, who account for 40% of the population), have had to contend with 44 years of military occupation.

In Gaza, the illegal blockade continues to corrode the lives of its one-and-a-half million residents, 70% of whom are refugees registered with UNRWA. To some observers, these effects are not immediately apparent as the inflow of commodities through the underground tunnels connecting Gaza with Egypt ensures that consumer goods are available, at least to those who can afford them. The partial but welcome easing of restrictions announced by Israel last year, moreover, has gradually allowed UNRWA and other United Nations agencies to begin rebuilding infrastructure destroyed or damaged during years of conflict, though cumbersome procedures, and the bottleneck effect of having to channel all goods through one crossing point with limited capacity, mean that reconstruction projects can only be implemented by international agencies at a pace which is vastly inadequate given the needs of the population.

Nobody should be misled by the absence of conspicuous starvation in Gaza or the outward appearance of bustling, crowded streets and shops: they are but a thin veil of normality concealing a profound wretchedness of human suffering, which affects every aspect of the lives of ordinary people in a large and developed urban environment - their household economy, the availability and quality of basic services, clean water and a regular supply of electricity among many others. Above all, Israel’s blockade stifles the economy, especially because of the ban on exports to the traditional markets, Israel itself and the West Bank: Gaza is now importing goods that it once exported. The blockade has largely devastated the once-thriving private sector, its rich agricultural and fishing potential and (last but not least) its role as a force for peace and stability.

One should of course also mention the ability of people to move more freely in and out of the Gaza Strip, which Gazans must constantly fight for. This situation makes small concessions seem like major progress, though freedom of movement is a basic right which most people in the world take for granted. The severe limitations imposed by both Israel and more recently Egypt aggravate the deepest and perhaps most dramatic phenomenon of the blockade - the way in which it affects the human psyche by instilling a sense of profound and dramatic isolation. We observe this first-hand through the work of counselors in our mental health clinics (themselves at peril of being closed next year if urgent funding is not going to be provided by donors). These staff are busy giving psycho-social support to thousands of Gazans affected by the situation and by the deployment of heavy weaponry on targets in Gaza before and since the war in the winter of 2008. Every military incursion into the Strip renews the profound trauma and psychological stress which have become standard features of life in Gaza. Every threat of military escalation, as in recent weeks, sends waves of panic across communities in the Strip.

What these facts convey is that military means to address the conflict, including punishing an entire population already suffering from the blockade, and including launching rockets, affect civilians and thus not only breach the laws of war but protract the diverse, profound and intolerable plight of the people of Gaza.

I am not suggesting that that there is a simple solution to the Gaza crisis, with its asymmetries of power and seemingly irreconcilable agendas. Nor by the way has the recent rift between the main Palestinian factions made the will to peace, or the means to achieve it, any easier. In this respect, let me echo here the United Nations Secretary-General’s appreciation for reconciliation efforts, and his exhortation that they be conducted in a manner conducive to the pursuit of peace.

As you all know from daily experience, military occupation in the West Bank takes even more complex forms. Movement restrictions including the West Bank separation barrier are most invasive, ubiquitous and stifling, as Palestinian movement occurs only with the permission of the occupying authority. Without the liberty to move freely, Palestinians are systematically denied a prerequisite for a normal life.

Another manifestation of the occupation is the continuous cycle of home demolitions, evictions and building permit denials to which Palestinians – including the refugees – and their homes and properties are being subjected, especially in East Jerusalem. The rate and frequency of demolitions leave no doubt as to the systematic and deliberate nature of these practices.

At the same time Israeli settlements expand relentlessly on Palestinian land throughout the West Bank. Among many examples, let me mention the village of Walajeh, a refugee village in southern Jerusalem. Several visits there have left me with indelible images of settlements encroaching with steady progress on the community’s land, fenced off from its rightful owners who are denied permits to build anything, and whose homes are methodically demolished without mercy. At every visit that I make, the situation of the local community has worsened.

The twin policies of demolishing Palestinian homes and expanding settlements raise political issues, and I am referring here to the viability of a durable and comprehensive solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that diminishes steadily with every brick laid in the settlements. These are, however, also issues with a dramatic human cost. It is estimated that three thousand demolition orders targeting Palestinian homes and properties are awaiting implementation in the coming months. This will cause acute, untold suffering to thousands of people. We at UNRWA are especially concerned by the situation of many of them - refugee families living for decades in exile - for whom this situation will mean further displacement to create space for the illegal settlement enterprise, especially in and around East Jerusalem. We should be under no illusion: unless decisive action is taken by the international community to stop this abuse, the worst is yet to come.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Given this discouraging picture, it is natural to ask about the real scope of UNRWA’s role and impact in a refugee context adversely shaped by geopolitics and the conflicts that come with it. We are, after all, a humanitarian and human development organization with no mandate to address the conflict itself.

In the absence of a just solution to the refugee question, as everybody knows, UNRWA’s mandate is to promote the well-being of refugees and to protect them. Besides providing relief in conflict or other emergency situations, with the generous commitment of donors we have invested over $4 billion in the human development of refugees in the last 10 years alone, delivering tangible improvements in the social and economic life of refugee communities, and attempting to empower individuals, especially young people, to seize and create opportunities - opportunities that help them lead more secure and fulfilling lives.

When a refugee from Ein El-Hilweh, a graduate from our schools, studies in America and is drafted by NASA to assist in cutting-edge research, and is then awarded a full scholarship to pursue a PhD at one of the leading science schools, UNRWA is fulfilling its purpose.

When we provide loans to Umm Aysha, an informal-sector entrepreneur in Gaza with no other access to capital, helping her to generate income to support herself and 26 family members wholly dependent on her, we are delivering on our objective to create opportunity.

When, as happened in 2010, UNRWA partners with the UN family and the Government of Lebanon to legalize the rights of Palestinian refugees to work in a range of professions from which they are banned, resulting in an unprecedented amendment of labour legislation, we further strive to fulfill our purpose by ensuring that rights endowed become rights in practice, with the potential for long-suffering refugees in Lebanon to achieve basic human security.

I consider the creation of opportunities a crucially important aspect of UNRWA’s work. It is at the heart of what we do, and must do further, to improve the quality of life of the refugees we serve. Let me therefore amplify, taking as a point of departure the situation of Palestine refugee youth in the occupied territory and where they and UNRWA face some of the most profound challenges.

Young people, 25 years of age and under, exceed 50% of the population. This means that a majority of Palestinians here have lived the entirety of their lives under Israeli military rule. It is their formative reality. Within this demographic, refugee youth are uniquely vulnerable. While the data is disturbing, to fully appreciate its shocking implications one must set it against the region as a whole.

At 23%, the Middle East and North Africa have the highest rate of youth unemployment of any region in the world, as recorded by the International Labor Organization in its comprehensive report released late last year. In the occupied Palestinian territory this rate approaches 50%. In Gaza it reaches 66%. When taking into account that these rates exceed those found in Tunisia and Egypt, where they contributed to igniting the Arab Spring, there can be no doubt about the severe conditions which Palestinian youth cope with on a daily basis.

Against this background of coerced deprivation, with its negative effects on refugee youth, the need to lay the foundation for human development and opportunity takes on special significance. Notwithstanding the many and shifting impediments on the refugees and on UNRWA’s ability to optimize its impact - including a constant shortage of resources - I believe that UNRWA must continue to work to empower refugee youth and to help them stake their claim to their future.

It is an effort which UNRWA is striving to conduct in all areas of its core work by innovating its programmes, from primary education (the most important contribution of UNRWA to the future of Palestine refugees), to technical and vocational training; from a reformed health programme which focuses on healthy lifestyles and on families and communities, to economic investments which are modest, but growing in both quantity and quality - through the microfinance programme and through efforts to modernize relief activities by establishing a proper social safety network targeting the poor and vulnerable.

Many of these efforts, for which the support of refugees and stakeholders continues to be crucial, are being conducted through comprehensive programmatic reforms whose impact is already tangible in some areas. Take for example our residential technical and vocational training centres, which enable students from remote low-income rural communities – including women – to earn diplomas and build careers. They also enable students from Gaza and the West Bank to study together, helping them bridge a problematic divide. We are striving to make skills learned more relevant to the labour-market, and incorporate cutting-edge technologies where resources allow, creating broader employment opportunities in a range of professions. In the West Bank, the most recent data show over 81% of our trainees found work, by comparison to less than 70% of the age group as a whole.

Or take microfinance - and I am glad the Director of our Microfinance Programme is with us today - through which in the past 20 years we have contributed to placing economic power in the hands of a range of vulnerable groups including women and, more recently, youth. In 2010 people between the ages of 18 and 30 obtained 4,000 loans valued at $5.7 million from UNRWA’s microfinance programme. Overall, since 1991 when it was established, the programme has invested almost $300 million in the region.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Palestine refugees remain, largely, in the locations to which they fled after the dispersion following the events of 1948 and 1949. Naturally, their numbers have grown – we now register 4.8 million, about six times more than the refugees in 1948. In spite of the passage of time refugees are no less determined to seek redress for the injustice they have suffered, to claim recognition for their plight and compensation for what was lost when they had to abandon their homes. Their numbers, the centrality of their history and the fragility of the contexts in which they live, make them an important - or dare I say a crucial - constituency not only in the dynamics of the search for peace but also in the geo-political balance of the Middle East.

The majority of refugees as you know are too young to have known the “home” which their parents or grandparents speak about. However, to refer to the title of this conference, refugee identity is indivisible when it comes to asserting the fundamental right of refugees to seek a solution to their plight which not only is just and in accordance with international law and UN resolutions, but which also responds to their aspirations and demands. This is a basic entitlement which underpins the collective identity of refugees.

It could thus not be clearer that any process leading to a resolution of the conflict must include the refugees – engaged as a party with specific interests – and address the realization of this entitlement. Without them – a strategic constituency influencing the equilibrium of the region – justice will not be obtained, and peace cannot be durable.

In fact, there simply can be no peace in the Middle East until Palestine refugees are brought out of their 63-year state of dispossession and exile. UNRWA will continue to advocate that refugees must be engaged in the context of discussions between political actors, including the parties - discussions that must in turn be based on international law and UN resolutions and reflect the informed views and choices of the refugees.

We are not naive. We understand the complexity of the conflict, and of possible solutions thereof. We appreciate that political deals are hard deals, requiring compromises by the parties that are sometimes painful - and especially so when issues are deeply existential, as is the case for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We know that consulting refugees is a challenging exercise.

But many things that seemed wishful thinking only a few months ago in this region are profoundly, irreversibly changing as a result of the “Arab Spring”. If the Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian people have succeeded in ousting dictators and demanding - and partly obtaining - the establishment of political processes in which everybody will have a voice; if non-democratic regimes are being asked to respond to the demands of their people; it then stands to reason that Palestinians, too, have a right to be heard, and - of specific interest to us here - that Palestine refugees have a right to be represented in a fair manner in the processes that will decide on their own future. This will require - in different ways and from different perspectives - courage and commitment by refugee community leaders and the Palestinian leadership, by the State of Israel, by peace negotiators and by the international community at large. It will be a difficult effort, but one which could yield important results in terms of achieving and sustaining peace.

Palestine refugees hold a substantial stake in a just, stable future for the Middle East - a stake on which hangs theirs and their children’s destiny. Given their numbers and propensity for high achievement, they constitute a substantial reservoir of human capital capable of contributing to the strength and stability of the region and to the future of their nation. It is incumbent on us, at long last, to heed their call for justice.

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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