Conference on Palestine refugees (Geneva, 7-8 June 2004) – Introduction – UNRWA Press release

Meeting the Humanitarian Needs of the  Palestine Refugees in the Near East

Building Partnerships in Support of UNRWA

An estimated 65-70 countries and inter-governmental organizations will gather in Geneva from 7 to 8 June 2004 to debate the future of humanitarian assistance to the 4.1 million Palestine refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). UNRWA, the largest relief organization in the Middle East, is responsible for the wellbeing of refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory (West Bank and Gaza Strip) – the largest single refugee community worldwide. Established in 1950, the Agency employs over 24,000 staff – almost all of whom are refugees themselves – in the fields of education, health, social welfare and micro-credit.

The two-day meeting, to be held at the International Conference Centre in Geneva (CCIG), will be hosted by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (sac) on behalf of the Swiss Government. Senior officials – at the level of Directors-General of national aid agencies or humanitarian assistance departments – are expected to attend from all UNRWA donor countries, together with counterparts from countries hosting the refugees and the Palestine Liberation Organization. A small number of other countries with which the Agency is building new partnerships will also be invited to participate.

UNRWA holds an informal meeting of host country representatives and major donors those contributing over US$ 1 million to the Agency – twice a year in Amman, Jordan. The Geneva meeting represents an exceptional opportunity to discuss and plan humanitarian and human development strategies for the refugees over the next three to five years. As Commissioner-General Peter Hansen puts it: "UNRWA is determined to continue to build lasting assets, at a time when persistent funding shortfalls threaten to turn such assets into liabilities."

Organized in thematic working groups, longstanding and new supporters of the Agency will help chart the road ahead through a six-month preparatory process, working closely with external experts and Agency staff. The preparatory process will climax in full-day parallel workshops at the CCG on 7 June, chaired by lead countries assuming responsibility for agreed topics. UN agencies working in the region and host country authorities will contribute to these debates, which will focus on concrete conclusions and recommendations. On 8 June, the plenary session is expected to include an address by the Swiss Foreign Minister; a live video-link to an UNRWA school in Jordan; a report-back from the workshops; and a roundtable panel debate among key stakeholders. The meeting will close with a chairman's summary of the workshops' findings and a final declaration.

While this will not be a pledging conference for donors, the financial implications of the meeting's conclusions will be on the table. The Agency is voluntarily supported and has suffered from inadequate donor funding for years, resulting in deteriorating physical assets and a worsening of once-excellent standards of health, education and shelter for its beneficiaries. sac and UNRWA hope that an endorsement of the road ahead will lead to a commitment to increased funding in the coming years, from existing and new donor countries and institutions.


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