Marking 65 years since the inception of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today called it more than just an agency but a “lifeline,” as he paid tribute to its staff especially those who have lost their lives trying to serve others.
“Anniversaries are usually a time for celebration,” Mr. Ban said at Headquarters this morning. “But we do so with the heaviest of hearts. We do so knowing that we should not have had to mark the 65th anniversary of UNRWA because UNRWA was never meant to exist for this long.”
“It exists because of political failure. [It exists] in the absence of a just and lasting solution to the plight of Palestine refugees,” the UN chief added.
UNRWA provides assistance and protection to nearly 5.2 million registered Palestine refugees through the provision of health care, education, social services, infrastructure and camp improvement, and microfinance, and emergency assistance, including in times of armed conflict.
Joining Mr. Ban at today’s event on UNRWA@65: Sustaining Human Development and Protecting Rights of Palestine Refugees was President of the General Assembly, Sam Kutesa, Special Representative of the President of the State of Palestine, Hanan Ashrawi, and the Commissioner-General of the UNRWA, Pierre Krähenbühl.
The Secretary-General paid tribute to UNRWA's 30,000 dedicated staff, most of them Palestine refugees themselves, and to all the staff who were killed during the terrible fighting last summer.
Last summer’s conflict in Gaza caused massive loss of life and devastated homes, schools, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, Mr. Ban said, as he urged parties to finalize the arrangements to rebuild destroyed homes.
“We know where failure to address these and other issues will lead. We have seen it time and again. Gaza is a powder keg – mounting frustration and anger will surely light the fuse. Action is needed now,” Mr. Ban said.
Gaza today is home of the highest unemployment in the world, with more than 60 per cent of young people not working. Life opportunities for Palestine refugees continue to be made immeasurably more difficult by blockade, bombings, siege, closures and upheaval, he added.
Some 60,000 Palestine refugees from Syria have fled to Lebanon and Jordan, putting pressure on host communities. From Syria’s Yarmouk and Jordan’s camps to the West Bank, the lives of Palestine refugees are constrained, with poverty and deprivation overflowing in overcrowded camps and the needs of the communities continuing to grow resources.
“The result is deepening pain and vulnerability for Palestine refugees. Some are resorting to desperate measures, putting their lives in the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers, in a perilous attempt to reach Europe by sea,’ Mr. Ban said.
UNRWA remains a vital stabilizing factor, Mr. Ban said, urging the leaders of Israel, Palestine and all parties with influence to resume meaningful negotiations without further delay, and put an end to unilateral actions that erode trust.
In the same vein, General Assembly President Kutesa said that few could have imagined 65 years later, that UNRWA would continue to play such a vital role in the lives of millions of Palestinians.
“Last year’s conflict in Gaza has had far-reaching, negative impacts on the 1.2 million people UNRWA provides assistance to there. Thousands died and many more were injured, some of whom will suffer from life-long physical disabilities and emotional trauma,” he said.
Moreover, the deterioration of the socio-economic and humanitarian conditions in the region has created formidable obstacles to the agency’s ability to provide necessary aid, including with its emergency, reconstruction and development programmes.
Hence, it is vital that the necessary funding is provided as quickly as possible so that reconstruction can begin in Gaza. In that context, he urged all donors to seek ways to further support UNRWA’s vital work across the region.
“Renewed support from the UN system, donors and the international community will be critical to further strengthening the work of the Agency,” Mr. Kutesa emphasized.
Also taking to the floor today, the head of UNRWA, Mr. Krähenbühl, said that marking 65 years of the agency requires a necessary moment of reflection on what it means to be Palestine refugees today, who face an “existential crisis.”
“Being a Palestinian refugee in Gaza means being a victim of a blockade and wishing nothing more than to be self-sufficient,” he said, recalling also his visit to Syria’s Yarmouk camp where he had seen first-hand the misery and hunger etched into the faces of Palestine refugees.
Reflecting also means reviewing some of the outstanding achievements UNRWA has made in the last six and a half decades. For example, during the 2014 conflict in Gaza UNRWA sheltered some 300,000 displaced persons in 90 of its schools and provided lifesaving aid in the extreme circumstances of war.
“During the ongoing conflict in Syria, we continue to provide essential relief to the hundreds of thousands displaced from Yarmouk with essential lifesaving aid but also healthcare and education,” Mr. Krähenbühl said.
With the support of its partners, UNRWA has also contributed to human capital development of the Middle East. As it stands now, some 700 schools are run by UNRWA, which is equivalent to running the public school system of San Francisco. Some 140 health care clinics are also run by UNRWA.
This has created the human capital that many countries in the world would envy. Pointing out that these achievements come at a high cost, he paid tribute to the UNRWA workers who lost their lives in 2014.
“We are all witnesses to the failure to find a just and lasting solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees, which has become a matter of common sense in an increasingly unstable Middle East,” he said.
Not acting today when 65 per cent of Palestinian refugees under the age of 25 are educated but unemployed will lead many to despair and to choose desperate routes in the Middle East and beyond, he warned.
“We can choose to close our eyes to this but we should be aware of what the landscape will look like when we open them again,” Mr. Krähenbühl said, emphasizing that the agency requires the support of existing and new partners and that financing its work must be seen as an investment rather than a burden.
“But humanitarian aid is not a substitute for human dignity and human rights. Palestinians deserve a just and lasting solution,’ he added.