Palestinian Refugees: Seeking an Overdue Solution: Karen Koning AbuZayd Provides an UNRWA Perspective on the Problem of Palestine Refugees

By AbuZayd, Karen Koning | New Zealand International Review, May-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Palestinian Refugees: Seeking an Overdue Solution: Karen Koning AbuZayd Provides an UNRWA Perspective on the Problem of Palestine Refugees


AbuZayd, Karen Koning, New Zealand International Review


The UN Relief and Works Agency was established by the UN General Assembly in 1949 and began operations in May the following year. The rather staid moniker handed us by the General Assembly--'Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East'--signaled the international community's readiness to assume responsibility for an important aspect of fallout from the 1948 conflict. Over 700,000 people fled their homes and were in urgent need of emergency assistance. There were a number of undercurrents to the establishment of UNRWA and the mandate fashioned for it.

First, there was recognition of the unique character of the Palestine refugee issue in the Middle East, and its inextricable connection to the geo-politics of the region. There was also an intention to match the uniqueness of Palestine refugees with an agency exclusively dedicated to them. A separate agency, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was created later to cater for the needs of refugees globally--with the express exception of Palestine refugees. A second theme underlying UNRWA's establishment was the bifurcation of political and humanitarian roles. Even though the political dimension is of significance to the refugee issue, UNRWA's mandate is entirely non-political in character and confined to humanitarian and human development activities. A third theme was that the agency's role was foreseen as finite and at the same time dynamic. UNRWA is expected to prepare for a time when its services are no longer required. To underscore this, the agency is financed solely by voluntary contributions and its mandate is renewed by the General Assembly every three years.

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In the 57 years since UNRWA came into being, these themes--the unique character of Palestine refugees; the interplay between the political and the humanitarian; and the drive to help prepare refugees for a better tomorrow--have played their part in shaping the course of the agency's evolution. We have moved on from the early years when our principal preoccupation was providing relief and emergency assistance. Our vision is now centred on responding to the humanitarian and human development needs of Palestine refugees. A constant feature of our work is to enhance the well-being and skills of refugees and to build their capacity to become self-reliant. We look beyond today, keeping in view the prospect of a just solution, enabling Palestine refugees to contribute their knowledge and skills to a viable Palestinian state.

Big effort

Each year, UNRWA's schools seek to enhance the learning potential of five hundred thousand refugee children, half of whom are girls. Conscious of the volatile and conflict-ridden environment in which they live, we devote considerable resources to passing on contemporary, marketable skills while pioneering courses to promote human rights, tolerance and peaceful conflict resolution. UNRWA's 127 clinics contribute to the physical and mental well-being of refugees through comprehensive primary health care and, to a limited extent, hospitalisation and other services. We count among our achievements the eradication of communicable diseases and nearly 100 per cent childhood vaccinations. We offer food and social services to the poorest of the poor, those vulnerable families experiencing particular hardship, the widows, the elderly and the handicapped.

We construct and repair homes and provide sewerage, and environmental health services to structures in the 58 refugee camps (where only one-third of the refugees live) in our areas of operation. Our micro-finance programme offers financial assistance as well as advice and training to those able to sustain themselves and their families with small enterprises. And when--as sadly happens all too often--armed conflict triggers emergency situations in Gaza, the West Bank or Lebanon, our programmes for temporary employment, cash assistance, food distribution and shelter provision assist refugees to cope better with heightened hardships. …

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