Public talk by Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Back on the Agenda? The Imperative of the Middle East Refugee Question

5 March 2012
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It’s a pleasure to be here today and I would like to thank Dean Schwartz for the invitation. Eric and I worked closely together on Palestine refugee issues when he served as Assistant Secretary of State for Population Refugees and Migration. He represented UNRWA’s largest donor so the relationship was close – always frank and direct. I am very glad that he has given me the opportunity to share some thoughts with all of you.

You are helping me fulfil a professional and personal responsibility. While the high plateau (or deep morass, if you prefer) of international politics is the domain of our political leaders, the rest of us have an important role: to share views and build common platforms of understanding. This accountability, shared by all, also builds the conditions on which peace and stability can be sustained. On that basis, I look forward to hearing your comments and fielding your questions after my remarks.

Tonight I will share my perspective on key issues shaping the context in which UNRWA, the organisation I am honoured to lead and the United Nations agency responsible for Palestine refugees, operates. I will try to explain the relevance the refugee issue, and hence UNRWA, have in this context. Although the Israeli-Palestinian issue may have been overshadowed in the media and public opinion by recent events in the broader region, it remains the most intractable international political knot. It is also an issue which produces extraordinary confusion in analyses and responses. Perhaps because of the depth and extent of the emotions linked to this conflict, we tend to allow our hopes to cloud our views of it more than in any other situation. We have let reports of process substitute for the reality of concrete progress. We don’t understand why the two parties do not sit down in peaceful negotiations and reach a reasonable compromise. We take a snap-shot view, rather than an historical perspective.

Of course, the strategic focus in the Middle East today, as always, is on security and resources, with much discussion going on about Iran, for example (and you’ll hear more about it this week), or the Syria crisis. However, I argue that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is still the primary determinant of regional stability, and hence prosperity. As is frequent with conflicts, what is often forgotten is that in this case, too, peace is ultimately about people: There will therefore be no peace with almost five million refugees in political limbo, and the refugee issue unresolved. Palestine refugee concerns remain not only unaddressed, but are consistently removed from the narrative of negotiation and peace “processing”.

Throughout the last year the world has been seized by riveting events shaking decades-old regimes and toppling long-held assumptions. The region has not seen this scale of change since the end of the colonial era in the late 1940s and early 1950s. While there is hope and excitement, there is also risk and uncertainty. As election results have shown in Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, the political landscape likely to emerge from Arab Spring transitions will be diverse and complex, with political Islam likely to play an important and hopefully positive role. This said, the reflex of many has been to think of these political uprisings as leading, inevitably, to democratic reform. This, if you allow me to say so, is somehow a superficial reflex. The reality is, as always, more complex. Building institutional democracy will be a long, arduous effort. And although the compelling narrative of downfall of autocratic regimes has been eloquently voiced by reformers and human rights activists, joining the chorus are also those whose interests are decidedly different – foreign and local elements doing the bidding of outside parties. While the thrust towards liberty, rights and participation has been amazingly powerful, the equations are not linear, and at this point no one can predict the outcomes.

The backdrop to the Arab Spring is the regional demographic situation. An unprecedented 30 per cent of the population is between the ages of 15 and 29 – this is a profoundly different situation from the aging scenarios prevailing in industrialised societies. A quarter of these are unemployed. Youth carries the potential for a regional economic leap forward, but harnessing this youth force will require concerted focus on education, technical and vocational training and employability. It will also require political stability and rule of law to encourage investment that creates jobs. Otherwise, we face the prospect of more conflict and instability as a result of this demographic phenomenon.

The changes underway are seismic, and have created across the region a space in which, for the first time in decades or even more, Arab citizens have found license to speak, and the courage to assert themselves, asking more vocally than ever before for rights to be respected and resources to be shared more fairly. There is no other word than “revolution” to describe this state of affairs – and it is a transnational revolution at that. For the first time since the rise of Nasserism, ideals and aspirations have swept through the region, this time propelled by technology and new media. Elements of a new regional consciousness seem to become – again – a reality shared across borders, particularly by young people, in ways that are very distant from the rhetoric of the past. And however powerful the reaction becomes to this movement, change is already irreversible.

But let us focus on today’s subject. I find it remarkable that amidst so much change and so much opportunity, we see utter stagnation on perhaps the highest-profile and most crucial issue: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And an even more dramatic stasis on one of its most critical components, the Palestine refugee question. I suggest that it is now urgent that the refugee question be brought to the centre of the political process.

Since its inception in 1949, UNRWA has been tasked by the United Nations General Assembly to provide for, support, and protect the Palestine refugee population until a just solution can be found to their plight. Though we depend on voluntary government contributions, our programmes are quasi-governmental in nature, providing a range of services including education, health, and social support that not only sustain today, but build productive lives into the future.

Sixty-three years after their flight from their homes in the land of British Mandate Palestine which had become the State of Israel, the lives of the now almost five million registered Palestine refugees are still extremely precarious. Many of the refugees have not recovered from this original dispossession. For others, repeated displacement has been devastating. Many still exist in a disempowering state of dependency. Exile, as we also see in other situations, is not a condition that exhausts itself in the space of one or two generations – it is a crisis that needs pro-active, deliberate resolution.

The dispersion of the refugees across the region also means that they, and UNRWA, must cope with many differing social, economic, and political crises and stresses. In Lebanon, Palestinians live a difficult life of exclusion in the slums that have grown in the confined space of the original camps. They are barred from most formal sector employment, from owning property, and from regular access to state services. The public resentment of Palestinians in Lebanon, a result of the country’s fraught recent history, and of the complex confessional balances underpinning the system of government, provides a constant and harsh reminder of their status and lack of prospect. In Jordan, Palestine refugees enjoy relative normalcy, in spite of an underlying tension caused by the frequent perception that the interests of Palestinians may be in conflict with more core national interests. In Syria, where Palestine refugees have enjoyed a wide range of rights, current and dramatic events increasingly threaten to involve them as conflict nears urban Palestinian refugee camps in Homs, Dera’a and Damascus, among other places. While the outcome for Syria remains difficult to predict, the repercussions for Palestine refugees could be devastating if they are displaced again.

But it is in the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank and Gaza, including East Jerusalem, that life is most precarious for Palestinians. In June, they will have endured 45 years of Israeli military occupation. We have become so used to this state of affairs, that we tend to forget that every aspect of life – social, economic, political – is drastically affected by the oppressive structures of this occupation.

It is remarkable that anyone in Gaza – where two-thirds of the inhabitants are Palestine refugees – has a semblance of a normal life five years after the imposition of a blockade which the United Nations considers an illegal, collective punishment of the entire civilian population in Gaza. Some welcome, easing measures have been implemented since 2010, but much more needs to be done to address the situation in this small and overpopulated sliver of land. Imagine the complete physical isolation from the world and the frustration of living amidst 1.5 million people locked into a piece of desert twice 40 kilometres long and two or three kilometres wide. Rocket fire from Gaza into Israeli towns is abhorrent and is condemned by the UN and by UNRWA in no uncertain terms. At the same time, routine bombardments and incursions by Israel are an-ever present threat, taking with them lives of innocents on a weekly basis. Not only the private economy, the infrastructure and public services, but also traditional family and communal structures are collapsing under the weight of conflict and of the blockade. It is human nature to vent frustration on those closest to you, and regrettably, the levels of family and community violence are of great concern. Youth see their parents unable to cope and some of them turn to ideologies that offer identity and respite from the despair. It is a politically-created situation that is simultaneously stifling lives of young people and the chances of peace.

In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, where there are more than 700,000 registered refugees, the occupation is more complex. What has aptly been called the “matrix of control” refers to a sophisticated mesh of restrictions and infrastructure affecting every aspect of Palestinian life. An average of 300 Palestinian houses are demolished a year and there are 4500 pending demolition orders. Houses are demolished because they are considered illegal, but permissions to build are hardly ever granted, thus creating a vicious circle. Over 14,000 residents of East Jerusalem have had their residency revoked. This pressure on Palestinians often generates displacement, especially traumatic for refugees, who have already experienced flight and exile. At the same time, in spite of strong and repeated protests by the United States and the international community, settlements continue to expand on Palestinian land at an alarming pace. On this we must be clear: settlements on occupied land clearly contravene international law. An additional shocking reality is the impunity with which violence on Palestinians is perpetrated by settlers. It has increased 30 per cent in the recent period, and with very little legal consequence. The Barrier and permit regime, a system of extraordinary complexity, is cutting off Palestinians from their land and restricting access to critical educational and health facilities, centers of worship, and social and economic hubs. Only the size of Delaware, half the West Bank is now completely out of Palestinian control, severely compromising the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state.

In this grim context, the “peace process”, the “two-state solution”, the proposal of two peoples living side-by-side in peace and security – all the elements which swept through the international discourse in the '90s and which are still underpinning current efforts towards peace – sound increasingly like empty rhetoric, leaving one side indifferent and the other one frustrated. The negotiation narrative still waxes and wanes almost weekly. This is the “hum” of the peace process; this is what the West hears. Much has been said and written about this impasse. I would like to convey a simple message today: we must be careful, because that “hum” is about to drown out the dissonance of real lives under occupation – their daily despair, the anger it can generate, and the impact that this will have, also, on Israeli society.

You probably hear of various international actors engaging in advocacy on some high-profile features of the situation: a house demolition here, expansion of a settlement there. However, these “flash points” that make the news are almost a distraction from the larger picture, namely the long-term trend of attrition and alienation; whether this is deliberate or inevitable, it does not matter much. And here is no status quo. The matrix of control and normalisation of the occupation has movement: a deepening political, social, and economic marginalisation of the Palestinian population. As a consequence, self-determination drifts further out of reach, even as politicians commit ever more loudly to it, and in spite of the courageous and remarkable efforts of the Palestinian Authority, which the United States and the rest of the international community have recognised. Make no mistake, the situation is getting worse.

Palestinians are a people of tenacity and potential. Palestine refugees are no exception, and in spite of the often-repeated phrase that they have been kept “languishing in camps for 60 years”, and in spite of so many adversities, they have in fact shown great resilience over the decades. During the oil boom of the 1970s, UNRWA graduates filled the ranks of the white collar workforce of the Gulf. Palestinian society is rich with traditions that bind and provide identity, but also vibrant with innovations that align it with the newest trends in our interconnected world.

UNRWA has been often accused of perpetuating the refugee question. This is untrue. Responsibility for that state of affairs lies with political actors. On the contrary, UNRWA has been instrumental in giving opportunities to refugees while a just solution to their plight is sought. UNRWA has played a central role in the general welfare of the society and we are still their gauge of the world’s commitment to them. To Palestinians, UNRWA is the direct manifestation of the international community’s promise made to them in 1949 that they would not be forgotten. Amidst so much frustration and sense of betrayal, you will understand that it was not a small promise and ours is not an irrelevant role. By the same token, as with any caregiver, we can also be a target of their frustration and anger. The level of dissatisfaction has been growing in the past decade as funding lags behind needs. However, UNRWA remains that source of hope and a tangible piece of the bridge to a stable future, both for the individual and the community. This, if you will, symbolic role is arguably as important as the concrete assistance. Because the hope we represent is one way in which people can feel a sense of purpose in the midst of insecurity and seemingly overwhelming political and material odds.

I will give you a concrete idea of what we do on the ground and how we contribute. First, with just over 500 million dollars in our regular budget (about a quarter from the United States), with which we provide a number of key services to almost five million people, we probably have the most cost-effective programme of its size the world over. For example, we provide primary health care at a cost of $20 per person per year in comparison to the WHO level of $32 per person.

UNRWA’s health services have been a constant in the lives of Palestine refugees. Universal vaccination coverage, and a focus on mother-child health and preventive care at the community level, are the most notable features of our programme. The infant mortality rate of Palestine refugees is 22 per 1,000 live births; one of the lowest among lower middle income countries.

We have had the fastest-growing micro-finance programme in the region, with over $300 million in small loans disbursed in the last 20 years. Even amid the extreme hardship of Gaza, our programme is self-sufficient with a repayment rate of nearly 98 per cent.

If you ask a refugee what UNRWA has meant to his family, he is likely to say “UNRWA fed us”, recalling the feeding centres of the early days, and continued distribution of food staples. Poverty alleviation continues to be a very central concern for us. We have a good plan to address the needs of the poorest with more developmental targeting, but it will require considerable financial commitment.

Ensuring adequate shelter is one of the most visible and critical contributions of the Agency. UNRWA routinely assists with repairs to unsafe housing. It has rebuilt whole neighborhoods destroyed by the Israeli bombings in Gaza (often to just see houses destroyed again). UNRWA is in the process of rebuilding the entire camp of Nahr el-Bared in Northern Lebanon, which was completely flattened by Lebanese Army shelling of extremist elements operating in the camp. These are long-term projects requiring special fundraising over a number of years.

UNRWA is the lead regional provider of technical training to youth. We have focused our approach to better meet market demands, but have also realised that providing youth with opportunities means allowing them to explore and develop a wide range of skills. In Syria, we have a project that is breaking new ground for the Agency. Through a multi-pronged approach it supports life skills and leadership development, entrepreneurial awareness and business planning, and community participation. The results have surpassed our expectations, and we fervently hope that events in the country will not jeopardise the achievements. Young participants have come to realise they can lead or become entrepreneurs or promote community development. It is a tipping point – they change their entire outlook on life and take responsibility for themselves and their community. It is the real base of civil society, civic responsibility, productive careers and cohesive families and communities.

The bulk of our resources and efforts are devoted to education. UNRWA has educated the vast majority of Palestine refugees. Our programme reflects host country standards, and is supplemented with ongoing training, enrichment materials (such as in human rights), and activities such as school parliaments. Educating half a million Palestinian children is the greatest responsibility of UNRWA, and one that we take very seriously. I am proud that a new, thorough reform initiative will improve teaching and learning in our 700 schools, and I am especially proud that it will do so in a manner consistent with regional trends. More critical thinking, violence-free classrooms, and better professional development mean a more vibrant and relevant learning environment, and create the foundations for a freer society. The long-term implications for Palestine, and for the region, are tremendous. I cannot emphasise this enough. It is UNRWA’s flagship effort.

Investing in education and in youth employment are perhaps the most critical contributions to a stable future. Given the space, youth prove themselves over and over to be rich in creativity and innovative leadership. By contrast, the context we see – regional instability, an insidiously-creeping occupation, the failure of political efforts to address the conflict, and growing frustration – is highly alarming. But a more creative learning environment will at least sow the seeds for a responsible and participatory citizenship among refugees.

Clearly, peace in the Middle East requires that the refugee issue be addressed. By “addressing”, I mean that first the issue must be recognised again as critical to future of the region. Then the voices of those whose interests are at stake – those of the refugees themselves – should be heard. Negotiations, compromises, and agreements must feature these interests. This may have rung hollow until an ordinary citizen named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia just over a year ago, starting the first Arab Spring movement. Our call for refugee participation sounds – or should sound – much more real now. Stability cannot be built if the main grievances are postponed for decades on end by simply ignoring them.

Palestine refugee youth are increasingly vocal and politically savvy. As we saw after the publication of the so-called “Palestine papers”, their willingness to frankly confront the current generation of peace “processers”, including their own leadership, is growing, as is their inclination to think of themselves as part of a broader movement. A year ago, the images of their peers demonstrating in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a struggle for dignity resonated powerfully in the streets of Gaza and Ramallah. The imperative is that we support the voice of refugees, help bring that voice to bear on political processes, and at the same time encourage and tap the vast potential and increasing drive of the refugee youth contingent. It is no small feat. But there is the chance that it will work.

In conclusion, I appeal to you to tune in more closely. Pay attention to reality on the ground, look through the headlines. Be critical, think outside the box presented. Use your intuition, good sense, and help move the critical issues forward. When you examine the somehow-intimidating situation of the Middle East through the “human lens”, I think you will recognise many of its features in your own experiences. As always, the human dimension of the conflict will bring its components into a more manageable perspective. And forbidding as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to be, it remains central to our interests, and to our conscience. It is important to think that contributing to its solution, in all its aspects, is not beyond our reach, and certainly not beyond our responsibility.

Thank you.