Conference on Palestine refugees (Geneva, 7-8 June 2004) – UNRWA Commissioner-General keynote speech – UNRWA Press release

Geneva Conference:

press information

Distinguished representatives
Ladies and gentlemen

UNRWA is most grateful that all of you have taken the time to be at this high-level conference, given competing pressing demands on your attention. This is an extraordinary occasion, and we are going through extraordinary times.

While there are established fora to discuss issues pertaining to UNRWA and Palestine refugees, and we are part of an annual Pledging Conference at United Nations Headquarters in New York, the holding of this high-level conference is not simply opportune, but necessary, in the circumstances. And UNRWA, and I personally, are most appreciative of the Swiss authorities, who are co-hosting this event.

I would like to refer briefly to those aspects of UNRWA and our role which are extraordinary and special in themselves, and which have merited the holding of this conference.

UNRWA was established almost 55 years ago. It was conceived as a temporary programme to deal with refugees who had lost their homes and/or livelihood in that part of Mandatory Palestine which became the State of Israel. Originally, the thinking and the hope of the international community was that matters would be resolved within a few years, and, meanwhile, the refugees required emergency humanitarian relief.

In a stroke of vision and good sense, a component was introduced of what today is called “development”, “income-generation” and “self-reliance” – the antithesis of welfare. This led to the “works” part of our name.

Hence, when the United Nations itself was in its infancy, it developed one of its earliest programmes as a mix of relief and development, something which the international community struggles to combine even today.

Unfortunately, the “temporary” is still with us. UNRWA is still here, mandated to continue to provide “relief” and “works” assistance and support to a Palestine refugee population which has grown to over 4 million registered refugees.

Over the decades, in the face of wars, conflict and ensuing turbulence, UNRWA has had to deal with waves of first-time, second-time and third-time refugees. It has had to deal with one ad hoc situation after another. Each time it seemed that the most severe problems had been dealt with, matters grew worse, and UNRWA was asked via resolutions and other instruments, to take on additional tasks.

Sometimes, adequate resources have been made available by the international community to meet existing and additional needs, arising from demographic growth, rising costs, and new activities.

At other times, the financial contributions has not covered even minimal needs. And the issue of resources is only part of the problem: force majeure, difficulties, impediments, problems – all these affect our ability to provide services.

This inability affects the refugee community in many ways: it is a massive violation of the principles of humanitarian relief; it leads to setbacks in the benefits and achievements gained slowly and painstakingly over the years; it has a negative effect on stability and calm; it furthers the perception in the refugee community that the world pays less attention to their claims and needs; and the fury and ire aroused by events and perception of events, in the area and in the region, make a fragile situation difficult and untenable.

The situation in which UNRWA, and Palestine refugee communities, find themselves in today, should be seen in the context of an inexorable and escalating worsening in their daily lives. Every decade has been marked by events which have had some positive, but largely negative, consequences:

To recount briefly:

  • the 1950s were marked by a certain consolidation of the relief and works programme, a shift from tents and caves to shelters and prefabs, but also a receding hope of a quick solution to the refugee question;
  • the 1960s saw an improvement in schooling, and the introduction of training, of co-ed schools – the first in the region – but also the 1967 war which led to the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and to a phenomenon which was at that time unique: Palestinians becoming refugees a second time, and the birth of a second generation of refugees;
  • the 1970s saw continued improvements and expansion in vocational training, a generation of educated and trained Palestine refugees who contributed to the socio-economic development of the host lands, as well as in the Gulf and elsewhere; but this decade also saw war (1973) and conflict, leading once again to refugees being displaced, for the third time;
  • the 1980s saw a major invasion (Lebanon), which had very specific social, economic and “political” consequences for the Palestine refugees in Lebanon; and the start of the first intifada, which affected primarily the refugees in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip;
  • the 1990s were marked by the (first) Gulf war, which led to a mass movement of Palestine refugees and other Palestinians away from the Gulf countries, a consequent worsening in the lives of refugees as overseas remittances dropped and supporters of families became themselves applicants for aid; and the hope offered by the Oslo accords, the return of many Palestinians to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority;
  • the beginning of the new century, the 2000s, saw a drastic worsening in every sector of the life of the Palestine refugee communities – the start of the second intifada in late 2000, a retrogression in their social, civil, and political lives, a huge drop in safety and security, a massive increase in the applicant pool for relief and aid; a break in their schooling, massive setbacks in their ability to simply feed their families, a destruction of the infrastructure introduced in preceding decades, the investments – physical, capital, national – laid waste; and a continuing loss of that most valuable, irreplaceable resource – human life.

In short, where once refugee communities had, through their own hard work and determination, with the support of the international community and of major donors and of host governments, reached and in some cases exceeded, regional standards in health and education, they are now today at the bottom.

The Palestine refugee population is at a crucial juncture: as in many developing countries around the world, the benefits of available and efficient primary health care have led to sharp drops in child mortality and increases in life expectancy. As a result, the age pyramid of this population shows a very broad base, with 33 % of the refugees under 14 years of age, and a very broad middle: 57 % are between 15 and 59 years old. The consequence is simple: we are faced with a cohort of refugees in their prime, enjoying a good level of health and literacy. It will be followed by another large cohort, those currently under 14 years of age.

At this important juncture, what role model will they follow? That of the hooded, gun-slinging militant, or that of the modern young computer whiz? Will it be graduation caps and gowns or will it be unemployment and forced idleness? Will it be pride in achievement or pride in destruction? Will it be self-confidence and tolerance, or cynicism and bigotry?

Self-evidently, half of the Palestine refugees to whom I am referring are women. At UNRWA we take pride in having reached gender parity in our schools early on in our existence. Still, there is certainly scope for improvement. We have undertaken a thorough analysis of what else UNRWA could do to liberate fully the potential of Palestine refugee women.

The “youth bulge” is both a blessing and a challenge: it can present the opportunity of significant socio-economic development in the region, or it can become a harbinger of unemployment and disaffection. We cannot afford to disappoint the Palestine refugee youth, not only because our failure to secure their future would come back to haunt us, but also because we would have sorely failed in our mission. It is with them foremost in our mind that we have developed a vision for the coming years, which aims at ensuring the following:

  • that the refugees of the upcoming generation (both men and women) are well prepared to play their rightful role in the socio-economic development of their community.
  • that all Palestine refugees can live their life in dignity, free from the scourge of disease, within a decent living environment.
  • that the most vulnerable among them can count on our support in their time of need through a solid safety net while their own empowerment is stimulated through locally–based incentives towards self-reliance
  • that their rights as refugees will be fully safeguarded for as long as it takes to find a just and lasting solution to the conflict of which they are the long-suffering victims.

It is this broad vision which is embodied and elaborated on in the Medium Term Plan prepared by the Agency. It was created to articulate the Agency’s thinking about the future and has hopefully informed the discussions of the workshops. It is still in draft form so that it can take into account the results of this conference and of further consultations with donors and host countries.

This is why we are here:

  • to see what we can collectively and pragmatically do to stop the decline in the human development and living conditions of the Palestine refugee communities;
  • to see where and how we can retrieve what we can of the infrastructure in priority sectors such as health, education, and shelter;
  • to collectively agree on and draw up a set of actions for immediate, short-term, mid-term and longer-term implementation;
  • to strengthen existing, and to establish, new partnerships towards these common humanitarian goals.

UNRWA stands ready to make every effort to fulfil its role. We have been through good and bad times with the refugees, and we are, as a partner, ready to face the challenge.

Thank you.


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