Political action on the part of the international community is urgently required to tackle the fundamental issues that would determine the fate and plight of more than 5.1 million Palestinian refugees, the head of the United Nations relief agency tasked with their assistance said today.
Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), emphasized that as the 65th anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s adoption of a resolution establishing his agency neared, Palestinian refugees – which amounted to just under one third of the world’s total refugee population – awaited a long overdue settlement of their problems, as well as the start of concrete negotiations to establish durable peace in the Middle East.
“To neglect the plight of Palestinian refugees is a risk that the world cannot take, the more so because, notwithstanding the importance of UNRWA to the refugees themselves, the agency’s programmes bring a much-needed measure of stability to a profoundly insecure region,” he to the Assembly’s main body dealing with Palestinian refugees and human rights (Forth Committee), among other subjects.
“Historically, UN resolutions on Palestine have never been short of language suggesting the temporary nature of the situation of Palestine refugees,” he said, noting General Assembly Resolution 194 (III) of 11 December 1948, which stressed that “constructive measures should be undertaken at an early date with a view to the termination of international assistance for relief.”
“We are still waiting, 65 years later, for these ‘constructive measures’ to come to fruition,” he declared.
As the General Assembly committee began its annual consideration of UNRWA’s work, the Commissioner-General provided details on the “exceptionally charged and difficult circumstances” affecting the Palestine refugee population today.
In Gaza today, Palestine refugees and non-refugees alike are just emerging from unprecedented violence and destruction experienced during the 50-day conflict in July and August, Mr. Krähenbühl said. More than 1,500 civilians have been killed in Gaza, including 538 children, 306 women and 11 UNRWA colleagues.
At the peak of the crisis, he said, almost one third of Gaza’s population fled their homes, and UNRWA alone had sheltered and assisted almost 300,000 displaced persons in 90 of its schools.
“It is now essential that the international community supports the Palestinian Government of National Consensus to lead the way forward in reconstructing Gaza,” he said, noting that “much needs to be done.”
Turning to the West Bank, the Commissioner-General said that the situation of the 750,000 Palestine refugees there had also deteriorated since this past year. UNRWA observed a “significant upsurge” in violence towards Palestinians and Palestine refugees, a trend which had worsened further in 2014.
In 2014, he said, 46 Palestinians had been killed in the West Bank, 18 of them refugees. Moreover, socio-economic conditions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, continued to deteriorate for Palestinian refugees, with systematic Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinians and their conduct of trade causing widespread poverty and unemployment. This is being compounded by the pressures resulting from further illegal settlement construction, he said.
For its part, UNRWA is seeking $1.68 billion to enable it to rebuild 14,000 destroyed refugee homes, repair more than 70,000 refugee dwellings and 118 UNRWA buildings, rehabilitate camp infrastructure and provide essential relief, food and temporary shelter to those in need.
Expressing gratitude to the donors who had funded 75 per cent of UNRWA’s $300 million emergency appeal, Mr. Krähenbühl also thanked the many new donors who had come forward in recent months to support his agency, including, among others, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Namibia, Mexico and Thailand. With winter approaching, however, he stressed that there is an imperative need for the people of Gaza to see progress on the ground.
“Nowhere in the world does the provision of humanitarian assistance alone make up for the denial of dignity and human rights, the opportunity of a job to provide for family members and to live in freedom and self-sufficiency,” he emphasized.
UNRWA is facing a shortfall in its general fund, which is used to finance the agency’s core activities of education, health, protection, relief and social services, he said. The funding gap presently stands at $56 million, equivalent to one month’s operating costs. While UNRWA has taken measures to reduce its initially higher deficit, with only two months to go before the end of the year, the Commissioner-General urged all Member States to find ways to fund the agency’s core work before year-end.