Remarks by UNRWA ComGen at closing of 30th-anniversary conference, Oxford Refugee Studies Centre

13 December 2012

The 30th-Anniversary Conference
of the Refugee Studies Centre,
Oxford University, 7 December 2012

Ladies and Gentlemen, Professors, Colleagues,

Yarmouk, Meeting with internally displaced refugees that took
shelter in al-Faloujeh School.

It is an honour to be here with you today, and to address this audience on the occasion of the 30th-anniversary conference of the Refugee Studies Centre. This event is a welcome, encouraging reminder that refugees remain people to whom we owe support. I am particularly grateful to Dawn Chatty, Director of the Centre, for the opportunity to offer concluding remarks following two days of rich and varied dialogue about refugees.

I would like to say that I am familiar with refugee issues, but I am – in reality – as familiar with them as can be somebody who has never been a refugee himself. This said, my work has taken me for extended periods of time to the field, where the repercussions of assistance, protection and solutions – or the failure to provide these to refugees – are most visibly laid bare.

My remarks will not be of a technical nature. They will focus on UNRWA’s work and on Palestine refugees, as one of the current refugee issues which presents, to quote the title of the conference, many “unanswered questions”. The answers remain hostage to a variety of actors and forces. Among them are the international community and the contradictions inherent in its preference for short-term conflict mitigation over long-term durable solutions, so evident in the manner in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the origin of the Palestine refugee question – has been dealt with since its inception.

With these contradictions comes a prominent failure of the international community: its collective neglect towards fundamental rights and the aspiration to a just solution of the largest, most protracted and most complex of refugee questions – that of the Palestinians. These are not uncommon features of refugee situations, as we have been reminded in the panel discussions over the past two days, and my remarks will undoubtedly reflect symmetries and analogies between them and the broader experiences of other refugees, and lessons that should be learned from them. Let me say, however, that the very protracted nature of the Palestinian refugee experience, and its belonging to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, set it apart; and their plight is no closer to a solution than it was when UNRWA was established in 1949 by the community of nations, through a resolution of the UN General Assembly.

Sixty-four years after expulsion and flight from their homes, and enduring, in their long exile, multiple and various hardships, Palestine refugees remain a fixture of the refugee landscape, often conveniently side-lined as an obnoxious problem without solution, while recurrent crises affecting regional and global security – such as in Gaza and Syria in recent months – serve as painful reminders of their plight, with renewed but seemingly unanswered urgency.

In founding UNRWA, the UN General Assembly considered it a “temporary” agency whose principal function was to alleviate the suffering of refugees from Palestine. In its infancy, UNRWA carried out emergency humanitarian work on a mass scale, providing food, medical care and basic water and sanitation to most of the 750,000 refugees registered at that time. In meeting large-scale humanitarian needs resulting from conflict, UNRWA was one of the earliest, largest and, to an extent, most successful protection reflexes of the United Nations.

It was a reflex quickly and necessarily entrenched in the cycle of violence to which the region fell victim following 1948. The strategic impact of the Agency’s emergency role came repeatedly to the fore in the region’s defining conflicts. In the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, and long before the mass displacements which followed the end of the Cold War, UNRWA provided shelter, food and medical care to some 400,000 Palestinians forced to flee the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to Jordan and Syria.

During the first and second intifadas, UNRWA’s direct assistance was essential to refugee communities throughout the occupied Palestinian territory. UNRWA’s protection and assistance role in situations of conflict continues to this day, including in recent, dramatic instances. As a result of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza in December 2008 to January 2009, UNRWA’s emergency role took on a special character for the 1.5 million residents of Gaza, two thirds of whom are refugees, when, amidst the widespread destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure, the Agency provided life-saving assistance throughout the territory, including shelter to over 50,000 Palestinians displaced by the Israeli military campaign. And the same happened, on a smaller scale, just a few weeks ago, though in a very different political context which, in itself, would deserve a separate discussion.

UNRWA’s role speaks to the tensions implied in humanitarian action in almost any conflict, in particular protracted conflicts. On the one hand, measured in lives saved, families spared starvation and disease, and communities sustained in situations of large displacement, the Agency’s emergency humanitarian work contrasts with the continuum of violence. Creating a humanitarian space like no other in the region, the Agency helps insulate and protect – however imperfectly – the refugees from violence and the mutual cult of vengeance nourished by occupation and conflict. In this sense, as it is often said, UNRWA contributes to regional stability; it is not a coincidence if in the conflicts I have mentioned, the UN Security Council underscored its special support for UNRWA’s role, and its contribution to peace and security in the Middle East.

On the other hand, the root causes that spawned the conflict remain unaddressed, due to the failure of key international actors to play the forceful and – especially – impartial role that is required to foster a just agreement. In fact, the latest escalation in Gaza – a city of refugees, somehow – is also, among other factors, about refugees and their unresolved plight. This puts UNRWA – as has happened to UNHCR elsewhere, and to other agencies dealing with the human consequences of unresolved wars – before the difficult question: does its action ultimately contribute to the security of states and peoples, or does it absolve the parties of their responsibilities in that regard?

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The protracted nature of the Palestine refugee question has generated challenges of its own. Political, social and economic barriers have been imposed on refugees in different host countries at different times, creating structures of deprivation with lasting consequences for the refugees and, inevitably, the host countries themselves. There was, of course, and continues to be, the outrageous burden of the Israeli occupation, affecting refugees in Gaza and in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. However, a pervasive barrier to well-being was that imposed by economic underdevelopment and human insecurity associated with it. Palestinians and host country nationals alike have had to struggle, often with equal determination, to escape the trap of poverty. Faced with these complex challenges, UNRWA’s core work has expanded to the pursuit of what today we call the human development of the refugees.

The project to advance the human development of the refugees was expressed from the 1950s by UNRWA’s drive to achieve universal literacy and completion of education – for both genders, and long before any other educational actor in the region – through the preparatory level; to provide eligible youth with selective technical and vocational training suited to the market; and to eradicate communicable diseases and protect mother and child health through primary medical care. More recently, UNRWA pioneered the use of microfinance to generate income and jobs, including through loans tailored to refugee youth. The measures of performance of this initiative placed it in the top tier globally of microfinance institutions, although the blockade of Gaza and conflict in Syria have set back its ability to operate.

UNRWA’s work, in spite of multiple challenges, was made easier by the exceptional resilience and resourcefulness of the Palestinians. Their accomplishments have become part of the folklore instilled in each succeeding generation of refugees. They reveal the depth of the refugee will – the universal will of refugees, if I may say so – to self-improvement, to shape their lives against overwhelming odds, and to contribute positively to the dynamic of development in their communities, in the societies hosting them, and the world at large.

UNRWA, and the international community that sustains it, share credit in the continuing contribution to the human capital of the refugees. It is, however, the refugees that have seized opportunities and made their own way into the firmament of business, skilled professions, civil society, and public service, in every continent around the globe. In exercising social mobility despite the many handicaps against them, Palestine refugees – just like so many other refugees with whom I have had the privilege to work in my professional life – call our attention to their ambitions, resourcefulness and creativity, as if to remind us of our own failure to show the same qualities, invoke international law and its edicts of justice, and lead the parties to comprehensive and just solutions.

But not all is positive and easy. I would like to turn for a moment to the experiences of Palestine refugees in the host countries, experiences divided sharply by varying modes of exclusion and inclusion. It is important to bear in mind that the differentiated experiences of exile, along with the differing status ascribed to refugees in respective host countries, coexist with a strong and remarkably unified consciousness of their refugee identity. This is a point that bears repeating, as refugees grapple individually and collectively with the classic human emotions associated with dispossession and forced exile. They are estranged from the anchor of home and bereft of a fundamental sense of security and belonging. They live with a lingering awareness of historic injury, with the psyche of dislocation and with an unfulfilled longing for things lost.

The resilience but also the sad necessity of Palestine refugee identity strike all who come into contact with it. Many of the youngest refugees who were born, like their parents and even grandparents, in the diaspora, feel an attachment to the “homeland” as strong as the generation that lived there before their expulsion and flight in 1948. These youth are reproducing oral history and traditions of pre-1948 Palestine, a process occurring throughout the diaspora including in the occupied Palestinian territory. The significance of Palestine refugees physically resident in the territory of what is generally considered today to be the future Palestinian state, but psychologically inhabiting historic Palestine, should not be lost on us. The unchanging conception of home as historic Palestine points to a fundamental contradiction between the internationally agreed objective to see a Palestinian state established in what is termed the occupied Palestinian territory, and the collective will, undiminished by time, of Palestine refugees to see their claims to historic Palestine recognised. As you know, this contradiction constitutes one of the most difficult challenges of the peace process. UNRWA’s mandate does not encompass a resolution thereof, but I see it as part of UNRWA’s responsibility to remind the parties, and the international community, of the urgent need to address the contradiction in a manner consistent with international rights and principles, and in consultation with refugees themselves. In the absence of such a rights-based and consultative approach, and irrespective of the inevitable compromises that any peace requires, there will be no solution to the question of Palestine refugees, and no peace in the Middle East.

If a complex relationship between history, exile and identity is both specific to Palestine refugees, and also a feature they have in common with other refugee groups, so is their vulnerability.

Amidst various exposures to exile-induced hardship – exposures which for many years have been very obvious in Lebanon, for example, but which are becoming more evident also in relatively stable situations, as in Jordan – it is the current situation in Syria which today shows most dramatically the persistent vulnerability of Palestine refugees – and perhaps of all refugees – when they are subjected to crises, and particularly to the shocks of conflict. I travelled here yesterday from Damascus, so bear with me if I will share with you some fresh impressions.

Syria for over 60 years hosted Palestine refugees (numbering today over half a million), and provided them with a measure of stability and relative prosperity; now, however, it is a place beleaguered by war, criminality, poverty and fear. Make no mistake: all civilians in the country are deeply affected, but Palestinians will tell you that for the first time, their status as refugees in Syria makes them feel more insecure because of the conflict: access to scarce employment is more limited for them, for example; being a Palestine refugee makes the daily experience of crossing checkpoints and conflict-ridden areas even more terrifying than for others; and for Palestinians, flight alternatives across borders are almost non-existent, given the sensitivity of their presence in some of the neighbouring countries, although Lebanon has opened the door to approximately 10,000 of them.

I was shocked to visit an UNRWA school in Yarmouk, a Damascus suburb inhabited by 150,000 Palestinians, and to be unable to speak with the girl students because of the relentless boom of mortar shelling just a few hundred meters away. It shamed me to observe these refugee girls, diligent in their answers, composed in their demeanour in spite of the deafening noise, and determined to continue their classes, look at me as the representative of an international community unable – no, unwilling – to find the necessary unity and resolve to force the warring parties to stop fighting, and to bring them to the negotiating table; of an international community which today is contributing instead – we must say this: in very concrete ways, and on both sides of the Syrian divide – to the continuation of war and the suffering of civilians. It made me feel powerless and angry to have no answer to their silent questions other than to praise their courage. It broke my heart to be able to express only compassion for yet another ordeal which history has brought on their beleaguered people, sharing it today with millions of other civilians in Syria, but enduring it with the distinct vulnerability that belongs to refugees alone, and to Palestine refugees in very specific ways.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are confronted in the Palestinian situation with refugees whose fate remains hostage to the contradictions inherent in the international community and its myriad interests, and in its inability to engage in hard, politically intensive multilateral work on root causes of conflicts and refugee crises. That hard work is required of all duty bearers in the international system to break the cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, with its destructive ramifications in the region, especially where some of the consequences of this seminal conflict encroach on other crises, as in Lebanon and Jordan in the past, and as in Syria now.

There are symmetries between Palestinians and the experiences of other refugees, and lessons that should be learned from them. Some of the refugee crises of the Cold War were protracted and fuelled by deeply divisive conflicts, such as in Central America, in South East Asia, and in southern Africa, for example in Mozambique. Those conflicts were brought to an end also by ensuring that their refugee dimension was tackled, based on principles of justice and law, and on inclusive, comprehensive approaches. These are, similarly, necessary elements for a conclusion of the Palestine refugee odyssey, and must be exercised as choices freely made by Palestinians, a first principle in international refugee law, in the spirit of UN resolutions and especially General Assembly Resolution 194. This can only come to pass through a process in which Israel is an active and willing partner and its legitimate rights protected.

The passage of time and the dispersion of Palestinians has not diminished their demands for justice. And as I have already suggested, the opposite may be true. The growing awareness that human rights are not merely ideals, but also instruments with force to redress, have found fertile ground amongst Palestinians. With the rest of the world, millions of them witness rights violated and rights realised, knowing full well where justice must be done.

It is past time that we know the same, and take action.

Background Information

UNRWA is confronted with an increased demand for services resulting from a growth in the number of registered Palestine refugees, the extent of their vulnerability and their deepening poverty. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions and financial support has been outpaced by the growth in needs. As a result, the UNRWA Programme Budget, which supports the delivery of core essential services, operates with a large shortfall. UNRWA encourages all Member States to work collectively to exert all possible efforts to fully fund the Agency’s Programme Budget. UNRWA emergency programmes and key projects, also operating with large shortfalls, are funded through separate funding portals.

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

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Two UNRWA students from Gaza enjoy recess in their first day of school. © 2017 UNRWA Photo by Rushdi Al-Saraj
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