Civilians wishing to flee Gaza must be permitted to do so, stresses UN refugee chief

6 January 2009 – The top United Nations refugee official has stressed that civilians wishing to leave Gaza, where a military operation Israel says it launched in response to Hamas rocket attacks has entered its 11th day, must be allowed to do so, and reminded neighbouring States of their responsibility to provide access to safety for those fleeing the ongoing violence.

“Those who are compelled to flee the Gaza Strip should be able to do so and to find safety and security in other countries according to international law,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in a statement issued yesterday.

There has been no large-scale movement out of Gaza because of the Israeli blockade. However, Mr. Guterres urged that “all borders and access routes concerned should be kept open and safe, and Palestinians endeavouring to leave Gaza should not be prevented from doing so.”

He called for strict adherence to humanitarian principles in the ongoing conflict in Gaza, where an already dire situation has been made worse by the Israeli offensive which began on 27 December.

The UN estimates that Palestinian deaths have reached 500 and are rising, and some 2,500 have been injured in the conflict.

The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes, told reporters yesterday the humanitarian crisis was “increasingly alarming,” with the people of Gaza becoming more cold, hungry, often lacking power, water and other basic services as well as facing the constant threat of bombing and shelling.

Amid the worsening humanitarian environment, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been struggling to carry out vital tasks such as distributing food and medical supplies.

Mr. Guterres joined Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other senior UN officials in calling for an immediate halt to the violence and for humanitarian access for fuel and food into Gaza.

“It is absolutely imperative that the immediate delivery of humanitarian assistance to the civilian victims of this conflict be facilitated, including access from Egypt and Israel,” he stated, calling on the international community and all humanitarian actors to support UNRWA’s efforts to help the innocent victims.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has provided some emergency assistance to Egypt’s Red Crescent Society in case it is needed for the care of any Palestinians admitted into Egypt. The refugee agency stands ready to deploy an emergency team and equipment to the area as required.

Meanwhile, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has voiced its concern about the situation of the 840,000 children among Gaza’s population of 1.5 million. In an effort to reduce the suffering faced by children, the agency is delivering urgent supplies of food, fuel and medicine to Gaza hospitals, which are struggling to cope amid a lack of medical staff, drugs, equipment and space to treat wounded civilians.

“Being the most vulnerable part of the population, children are the first to be psychologically distressed, the most in need of medical support and the most exposed to injuries among civilians in times of conflict,” UNICEF’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Sigrid Kaag said in a statement yesterday.

“The number of children in Gaza affected by the loss of a parent, damage to their home, displacement, lack of needed medical equipment and treatment and the interruption of their education is yet to be fully measured. But it is significant,” she stressed.

In addition, Queen Rania of Jordan, who is also a UNICEF Eminent Advocate for Children, has called on governments of the region to protect the children of Gaza, including by contributing to UNRWA’s emergency appeal for $34 million to meet the immediate needs of Gaza’s civilians.

The World Food Programme (WFP), for its part, moved 11 truckloads of food into Gaza on Monday as part of efforts to respond to the growing humanitarian needs. Since the latest outbreak of violence, the agency has delivered some 1,600 tons of food into Gaza, where its warehouses are stocked with some 3,700 metric tons – about half their normal capacity.

While WFP is continuing to provide food to those in need, current hostilities have made it more difficult for the agency to carry out the distributions. “Even in places where we can open distributions, people are afraid to go and receive the food,” WFP’s Emilia Casella told reporters in Geneva.

The agency has only been able to distribute food to around 50,000 people – out of a normal caseload of some 265,000 – since the violence began. In addition, WFP has provided canned meat and high-energy biscuits to 13 Gaza hospitals to provide for 6,000 patients and staff for up to one month.