Commissioner-General’s World Refugee Day remarks

Thank you all very much for being with us this evening. I say a particular word of thanks to Mrs. Assad for sharing this World Refugee Day event with us. Your being here adds something very special to an exceptional occasion. On an occasion such as this, it is important to recognize the debt of gratitude that we owe to the Government of Syria, for its hospitality, generosity and continuing support to the well-being of refugees. I would also like to thank the organizers, sponsors and the management of this opera house. This evening would not have been possible without your generous assistance. I also acknowledge and thank the artists and performers who have worked hard to provide us with what I am certain will be a memorable evening.

On this Refugee Day, in every country across the globe, we remember everyone who has been forced to leave his or her home to seek safety from fear, from danger and from persecution. People become refugees when they are no longer secure or protected in their original homes. Refugees endure all manner of hardship and travail. The circumstances that prompt the decision to flee often include death or serious injury to their family members and in many instances, the journey to safety is itself fraught with risk and hardship.

Once they reach safety, refugees want nothing more than the dignity of a normal life. They want for themselves the protection of law and protection from armed conflict and its effects. Like everyone else, they long for decent living conditions, respect for their human rights and opportunities to work so that they can support their families and contribute economically and socially to their communities. For their children, they want quality education and health services and the chance for them to grow up in an environment that is conducive to the development of their finest human qualities. The most powerful and the most enduring desire of refugees is to return safely to the homes and places from which they fled. Of all the features that define the condition of being a refugee, this yearning to return is the most poignant and the most critical.

These observations apply to refugees all over the world. I am sure you agree that they apply with particular force to Palestine refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territory. I chose to open my remarks with a reference to the defining features of the refugee condition because World Refugee Day is an occasion to express our understanding of that condition. It is an opportunity to say to Palestine refugees: “We understand the historical events that caused you to leave your homes so many decades ago. We are aware of the trials and hardships that you have experienced and continue to endure in your long exile and we wish you strength and perseverance in your times of difficulty. As long as you require our services, and until a just and lasting solution is found to your situation, we will stand with you and keep faith with you”.

While this message of solidarity goes to all Palestine refugees, I hope that our brothers and sisters in the occupied Palestinian territory and northern Lebanon will take my words particularly to heart. Palestinians – refugees and non-refugees alike – in Gaza and the West Bank are experiencing an extraordinarily difficult period of grief, upheaval and uncertainty. The imposition since early 2006 of de facto international sanctions has dragged the economy to its knees. Unemployment, poverty and food insecurity are at levels that signal a genuine humanitarian crisis. Children, the elderly and the poor are bearing the brunt of a situation that saps at the human dignity of all. As if material deprivation were not enough, refugees in Gaza have had to contend with the impact of armed conflict with Israel and more recently with the extreme insecurity of internal armed conflict and deep political uncertainty. Although the guns appear to have fallen silent in Gaza, people are fearful. They are conscious that the international community’s reaction will go a long way to determine whether this period of partial calm is only the hiatus before the onset of yet another crisis.

In northern Lebanon, Palestine refugees find themselves in a situation of displacement within exile. Their escape from Nahr El-Bared to the safety of Bedawi recalled the typical portrait of refugee flight with all its danger and drama. What was distinctive was that the residents of Nahr El-Bared were already refugees and had been so for fifty-nine years. The spectacle of refugees being forced to flee over and over again is a stark reminder that the refugee condition is fundamentally vulnerable and that it is never resolved merely by the duration of exile. The government and people of Syria, Jordan and more recently, Lebanon, have been admirably hospitable and generous towards Palestine refugees. And so has the Palestinian Authority, of course. On its part, UNRWA has also been consistent and reliable in providing assistance over the decades. Yet nothing we do on the humanitarian front can substitute for the international community’s responsibility to seek a lasting solution to the plight of Palestine refugees.

The challenge to Palestine refugees – and to Palestinians as a whole – is to weather the harshness of their experience, and in spite of it, to maintain their dignity, individually and as a people, never losing sight of the ultimate prize that is promised to them in international instruments and by international law, namely an independent State that all Palestinians can call their own.

We chose as our theme "Celebrating Palestinian Culture" because the richness and diversity of the culture is one of the defining features of Palestinian identity. The brochure for this event points out that from early childhood, Palestinian girls are taught the art of embroidery, using motifs passed down from mother to daughter through the generations. Reflecting patterns that often date from antiquity, Palestinian textiles and traditional costumes testify to a rich cultural legacy. The embroidered items and outfits are valuable at many levels. They are beautiful to behold and a pleasure to touch. They also represent a treasure-trove of variety and local history, serving as icons of the depth and breadth of the Palestinian experience. In the needlework patterns of Palestinian embroidery we see lush assortments of designs interpreted in different ways and different colors over the decades.

Besides its historical and aesthetic value, Palestinian culture also contributes to the economy. Tradition-based small industries provide employment for significant numbers of refugees. These industries have helped to document, and thus preserve, Palestinian cultural identity and to empower women, while making the ageless beauty of traditional Palestinian embroidery accessible to the international market.

On this World Refugee Day, we showcase this distinctive heritage through paintings, sculptures, national documents, embroidery exhibitions, folklore dances and a fashion show.

The performances that we are about to enjoy celebrate the strength and beauty of Palestinian culture. If you believe, as I do, that the culture of a people is a reflection of their essential nature, then you will accept that our gathering here tonight applauds and commemorates the fortitude of Palestinians; their courage and resilience and their ability to survive and thrive against all odds. These are the qualities on which Palestinians must rely to overcome the trials of today and the tests of tomorrow.

I wish you all an enjoyable and memorable evening.