Magazine article UN Chronicle

UNRWA at 35: Still Helping Palestinians despite Cash Shortage and Political Tensions

Magazine article UN Chronicle

UNRWA at 35: Still Helping Palestinians despite Cash Shortage and Political Tensions

Article excerpt

UNRWA began its operations in May 1950 by taking over some 50 camps that had been hastily put up earlier by voluntary agencies to accommodate the refugees. With 17,000 employees--the largest operation in the United Nations system--UNRWA operates in the Middle East on the basis of accords agreed with the Governments of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syrian Arab Republic and, since 1967, with the Israeli authorities in respect of the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza strip.

Walking a tightrope in the midst of the Arab-Israeli conflict, often having to work in an atmosphere of political tension and physical violence--such as in Lebanon over the past two years--and facing a constant financial crisis due to a shortfall of voluntary contributions, UNRWA nevertheless has succeeded over the years in providing more or less uninterrupted service to the Palestinian refugees.

"UNRWA has become an established institution in its area of operations and plays a central role in the lives of the Palestine refugees registered with it", says Olof Rydbeck, who heads the Agency as its Commissioner-General, in his latest annual report to the General Assembly (A/39/13). "To the Palestine refugees, UNRWA is not only an agency which provides valued services. It is also the symbol of international commitment to their welfare and to a just resolution of their plight."

Today, a little more than two million Palestinian refugees, half of the estimated number of Palestinians, are registered with UNRWA. Thirty-five per cent of those registered live in camps in the occupied territories and in the Arab host countries. The rest live outside the camps.

In the first few years of its work UNRWA concentrated on providing relief in the form of food, shelter and clothing. However, as the refugees grew self-supporting the Agency shifted it semphasis to long-term programmes. A major change in policy was effect in 1982 when general distribution of basic rations to most refugees was suspended so that scarce resources could be directed to education and health programmes, which have higher priority in UNRWA's current programming. In 1985, education for Palestinian children will account for fully 66 per cent of the Agency's regular budget; 22 per cent will finance the health services, 10 per cent will be used for providing relief and the remaining two per cent for other costs.

Relief, Health And Education

In its relief activity, the Agency concentrates on providing for widows, orphans, the handicapped, the aged and the chronically ill, and makes available to them food rations, blankets, clothing and prosthetic devices; it also makes out small cash grants and helps refugees maintain their shelters.

In the report to the Assembly the Agency states that the continued occupation of South Lebanon and the general unrest in that country has led to a greatly increased relief operation. The report also deals with the position of more than 4,000 Palestine refugees left stranded in the Egyptian side when the border between the Sinai and the Gaza Strip was re-established in April 1982. UNRWA has sought an arrangement between the Governments of Egypt and Israel which would enable the refugees to return to the Gaza Strip and regain full access to the Agency's facilities and services.

Even while relief services continue, the Assembly, in accordance with UNRWA's changing programming emphasis, has urged Governments which have been giving contributions in the form of foodstuffs to convert them into cash assistance. The European Community and Canada have agreed to this call and recently began making contributions in cash rather than in kind. The Agency continues to solicit contributions of foodstuffs sufficient to meet the needs of the hardship cases and its supplementary feeding programme.

In 1984, UNRWA spent close to $19 million in providing eligible Palestine refugees with health services, which included provision of medical services, and programmes for supplementary feeding of babies and environmental sanitation. …

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