UN agency assisting Palestinian refugees marks six decades of work

24 September 2009
First graders at a UNRWA-run Elementary School in Gaza City participating in stress-relieving games and activities

National leaders and senior government ministers from around the world have gathered at United Nations Headquarters in New York today to pay tribute to the efforts of the UN agency that has assisted Palestinian refugees across the Middle East for 60 years.

National leaders and senior government ministers from around the world gathered at United Nations Headquarters in New York today to pay tribute to the efforts of the UN agency that has assisted Palestinian refugees across the Middle East for 60 years.

A series of public events are being held to mark the 60th anniversary of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which was set up to provide humanitarian assistance in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Karen AbuZayd, UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, said today’s high-level event offers “an occasion for reflection on why after 60 years of exile and dispossession, millions of Palestine refugees remain stateless.

“With increasing talk about an emerging peace deal, let us all recommit ourselves to finding a peaceful solution in which the tragic situation of the refugees will be resolved.”

The Agency currently provides education, health care, social services, microfinance, camp improvement and other forms of emergency aid to an estimated 4.6 million refugees living in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Speaking at today’s high-level meeting, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the Agency is “a lifeline and a beacon of hope,” as well as a powerful expression of the international community’s abiding concern about the Palestinian people and the question of Palestine.

Acknowledging UNRWA’s severe funding shortages, Mr. Ban appealed to all partners to do their part to ensure that the Agency’s invaluable work is placed – once and for all – on a firm financial foundation.

“The Agency’s work is too important for it to suffer budget crisis after budget crisis,” he added.

Last week Ms. AbuZayd warned that UNRWA may not be able to pay the salaries of its 29,000 staff through the end of this year because of a funding crisis. She urged UN Member States to donate more generously than ever to the Agency.

Most of UNRWA’s running costs go to staff salaries, the Commissioner-General said, and without an injection of nearly $17 million each month the Agency will not be able to guarantee salaries into 2010.

Ms. AbuZayd said she has written in the past week to every country that has ever donated to UNRWA to ask them to contribute “special pledges” given the current situation, and she hopes they will respond urgently.

In a newly released commemorative book, many world figures have paid tribute to the efforts of UNRWA, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s Queen Rania al Abdullah and United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Among today’s events was a ministerial-level breakfast held at UN Headquarters, at which a large banner was unveiled bearing the words, “Peace Starts Here.” An identical banner is currently displayed on the façade of the General Assembly building.

Addressing that gathering, Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said that as UNRWA marks its 60th anniversary, one message should ring around the world – that the strife and conflict must end. She added, “We are eager for the day when the Palestinian refugee issue is finally settled. Then – and only then – can UNRWA’s staff complete their mission.”

 

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