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Source: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
24 June 2010

Opportunities Amidst Crises: UNRWA and Palestine Refugees In Today's Middle East

Lecture by Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi
American University of Beirut, 24 June 2010

Distinguished guests, colleagues:

I thank Rami Khoury, the Issam Fares Institute and the American University of Beirut for inviting me to join you for a time of reflection and discussion. The AUB is internationally lauded for applying excellence in intellectual inquiry to advance our understanding of contemporary social, political, legal and human rights questions. The Palestine refugee issue touches on all these – and other – areas, and in its national, regional and international aspects, it represents a challenge of great complexity.

Several elements give the Israeli-Palestinian conflict its volatility and intractable character. Palestine refugees are caught in a precarious space sitting uncomfortably amidst the flux of regional events. Refugees were dispossessed and displaced by the conflict, yet their very existence and their presence in this region, are often cited as a complicating factor that impedes the realization of a solution or, in some contexts, threatens delicate political balance. In short, the tendency has been - and continues to be - to associate refugees exclusively with the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We tend to submerge them inside the paradigm of crisis and conflict to a point where we disregard their specific requirements and concerns or lose sight of their potential.

UNRWA, by virtue of its mandate, views things from another perspective. We see Palestine refugees as a community affected by the conflict and as persons who, as individuals and as a group, are within the sphere of international law. We see them as people living amidst crises, but with extraordinary and often untapped opportunities.

Following from this view of refugees there is considerable scope for departing from the tendency to confine ourselves to narrow approaches on the Palestinian question. Instead, I suggest an approach inspired by perspectives that are oriented around the opportunities that are offered – or may be created – within our fraught environment. In spite of the immense challenges confronting refugees – and indeed because of these challenges - it is my firm conviction that as humanitarian and human development practitioners, our preferred approach must be one which, while grounded in operational realities, raises Palestine refugees and the issues they represent, their needs and demands for solutions to the realm of what could be made possible if we placed greater emphasis on seeking and seizing opportunities.

Such an approach must take as its point of departure a forthright acknowledgement of refugee realities and the crises they face.

Imagine therefore that you are an average Palestine refugee living with your family in Jabaliya camp in Gaza. You are an adolescent and are just about to graduate from an UNRWA school. If we could enter the mind of this young man – a symbolic, but very real, representation of hundreds of thousands of young refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territory, what would we sense and what would we see?

This refugee would be aware of what it means to live under occupation. Like others in Gaza and the West Bank aged forty-three years or younger, he has known no other life than one lived under the control of Israeli forces. In the border town of Beit Lahia, he has seen the walls separating Gaza from Israel and knows of children his age or younger who have been killed or seriously injured for straying into the buffer zone on the Gaza side of the border with Israel.

This refugee entertains thoughts of visiting his relatives in the West Bank or of studying there or elsewhere in the region. However, he knows that the fact he is a young male would preclude the possibility of a permit to exit the Gaza Strip.

Unlike the majority of children around the world, our young refugee has experienced first-hand the horrors of armed conflict conducted in civilian residential areas and has relatives and friends who lost their lives or were injured in any one of the numerous military assaults Gaza has endured over the past ten years. His memories of the terrors he experienced during the recent war in Gaza are still fresh.

This young refugee is familiar with the sound of unmanned drones, invisible to the naked eye, endlessly circling overhead, and the air-splitting explosion of sonic booms deliberately created by F-16s. He is acquainted with the roar of tank shells, heavy guns and small arms fire. He can describe the ominous whistling sound artillery shells make before they strike and could explain from direct experience the indiscriminate damage they cause to civilians. Having lived through the events of June 2007, our young refugee is aware of the intensity of the intra-Palestinian conflict, of the injuries and loss of life it caused and the danger it poses to the unity of the future Palestinian state.

Our young refugee has a clear sense of the embattled fortunes of Palestine refugees in the region. He has seen footage of – and heard stories about - the Israel-Hezbollah conflict of 2006. He knows about the conflict that led to the destruction of Nahr El Bared the following year and the displacement of 30,000 refugees, some of whom are now children born displaced. He knows that a low-intensity conflict continues to rage in the West Bank, with a weekly average of around 70 Palestinian youth arrested during military operations. The systematic demolition of Palestinian homes and properties, including in East Jerusalem, and the resulting displacement of civilians – one that continues to be repeated 62 years on from the original flight - has come to his attention, as has the West Bank barrier and the range of movement restrictions, both physical and administrative, which prevent normal life for Palestinians across the West Bank.

Given the closure of Gaza's borders and its dire socio-economic circumstances, including a 40% unemployment rate and the collapse of its private sector, both parents of our young refugee have been without jobs or a regular income for several years. With neither parent a bread-winner, and with the blockade limiting the ability of relatives abroad to send remittances, cash is always in short supply in his household.

As poverty is rife and 80 percent of Gazans subsist almost entirely on humanitarian relief, most of which does not meet the daily calorific intake, our average young refugee lives the frustration of lacking the deserved distractions of childhood afforded to children elsewhere.

Even the proximity of the beach does not provide him with the outlet it would in other parts of the world. Instead of enjoying swimming and playing in the water, he struggles to find a piece of coast free of the stench and pollution from the up to 80 million litres of sewage pumped directly into the sea each day.

As a student in an UNRWA school, this refugee is familiar with the concepts of human rights and tolerance taught in the classroom. Yet he is sometimes understandably confused by the lack of confluence between the teachings and the daily reality of his often grim experience. His thoughts often stray back to the war – still fresh in his mind - and he, from time to time, wonders who brought this upon him and why. How can the many wrongs around him be righted? Although not using these words, his mind questions whether there will be any accountability for the death and destruction.

In common with others of adolescent age around the world, he is hungry for life and all its possibilities, eager to confront whatever the future might hold, but eager to be able to influence the direction of his life in as positive a way as possible. In spite of being physically isolated from the rest of the world, our young refugee is certain that a higher quality of life is available and achievable in the right conditions if he applies himself to his studies and works hard, both of which he is comfortable doing because his parents have instilled in him the value of education and the acquisition of skills as a means towards self reliance. If given the choice, he wants those higher standards for himself and his family.

Conscious of being on the cusp of adulthood and eager to make the most of life's possibilities, our young refugee, like others of his age, is preoccupied with – and seeks answers to - fundamental questions of life values and identity. He feels particularly strongly the insistent, seductive pull of the creed of extremism.

This is the creed that appeals to the thirst for societal recognition that is present in every young adult. It responds to the need to rationalize – to make some sense – of the violence around them, while offering a response based on the tangible power of the gun and the crude - but unfortunately persuasive – idea of "fighting fire with fire". And, as is well known from experience, poverty, social marginalization and frustration are often among the ingredients that lend extremism its power.

So our young refugee in Jabaliya finds himself confronting a vital choice, and he is torn because there are other values competing for his future direction. One countervailing force stems from the fact that our young refugee has no crisis of identity, either as a Palestinian or as a refugee. Thanks to the strong sense of culture and kinship acquired through a cohesive and close-knit extended family, he is comfortable with and confident of the Palestinian character at the core of who he is.

He draws strength from the fact that the family survives against extraordinary odds and understands that the spirit of fortitude in the face of endless assaults is integral to the Palestinian at the core of his being. From his reading, studies and the internet, he knows that there is a world beyond Gaza which, imperfect as it is and struggling with its own problems, appears to thrive on freedom, on openness and on the creation and sharing of wealth. He finds no contradiction – only convergence – between his understanding of the tenets of Palestinian culture and identity and the values espoused in that world beyond - non-violence, peaceful coexistence, respect for human rights and the dignity of all without distinction.

Colleagues and friends:

As our young refugee – and remember he represents the hundreds of thousands like him in and around the refugee camps across our region - sits amidst the storm of crises, conflict and poverty, pondering his dilemmas and peering into a future uncertain and unknown, which way should go? Which path must he take? And is it appropriate for the international community to be concerned by the choices he faces, and if so, in which direction must it guide him and how?

I believe that our answers should be easier to find when we approach these questions from the standpoint of seeking and seizing opportunities. Before elaborating further on this, it would be useful to remind ourselves of a point I made earlier on the importance of ensuring that our approach to opportunities is underpinned by the principles and practice of protection.

This means understanding that - individually and as a group – refugees are subjects of international law by virtue of their status as refugees. They have responsibilities towards the host authorities and communities and are entitled to claim the protection of relevant international instruments. This is the answer to the question we posed about our young refugee in Gaza. Yes, it is appropriate and necessary that the international community should be concerned by the choices he makes because refugees were never meant to be on their own. They and their interests are integral to the scheme of international law and protection standards.

Those standards require that during the period of exile, the international community, including host authorities and communities, should ensure for refugees the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, to the fullest extent possible. The conditions under which refugees live should meet minimum conditions stipulated in human rights instruments and access to health, education, social services and other facilities should assure reasonable human development prospects for refugees and their families.

The framework of international law and protection thus serves as a framework of norms that underpin the search for and realization of opportunities. That framework must be complemented and reinforced by activities that bring into being a sustainable approach to taking advantage of opportunities that are within and around the context in which Palestine refugees live. In other words, having recognised refugees as a constituency of concern to the international community, the next step is to acknowledge that they are not just recipients of aid, but people with socio-economic potential who are entitled to be supported in their efforts to realize that potential.

This is precisely the essence of UNRWA's work – a hands-on approach to caring for refugees and making a difference in their lives, in ways that are so simple and yet so tangible for those whose horizons are created and expanded through our work.

It is this approach which attracted me to UNRWA in the first place. It is an Agency that makes an extraordinary difference to the population it serves and, above all, it allows us to experience first hand the resourcefulness of refugees, which is – after all – what allows them to seize and make the most of opportunities available to them.

UNRWA's role, therefore, is to support the refugees, and match their inherent resourcefulness, bred – tragically – from decades of suffering, with the opportunities we have been mandated to provide by the international community.

This approach is, in a real sense, coded in the old-fashioned but very important "works" of UNRWA's name. It is the strength of UNRWA and also what makes us unique, founded as it is on the direct delivery of services through the Agency's own teachers, doctors, social workers, micro-finance officers. There are some who choose to dwell on the more high profile but nevertheless vital role UNRWA plays in situations of armed conflict such as the recent Gaza war, and thus tend to see us largely, or even exclusively, as a charity focused on distributing relief. This is a very partial view of the Agency.

As anyone familiar with the history of UNRWA's programmes would testify, the Agency has always been centred on promoting the long-term well-being and quality of life of refugees as individuals and as a group. Our focus on primary health, preventive health and environmental health programmes have been pursued in this vein, enhancing the physical capacities of refugees.

UNRWA's primary and vocational education programmes are also examples of the Agency's commitment to furnish refugees with tools and skills that expand their horizons and assist them towards self-reliance. That emphasis on self-reliance was, unlike many others working in the region and at the time, instilled in both boys and girls from a very early age. From its initial days, UNRWA pioneered gender parity in its schools in an effort to ensure that the entire population was enabled with the basic ability to read and write; to learn and to think so that they could have further opportunities to seize later in life.

Our microfinance programme plays a similar role. It offers to refugees the financial support they need to compete in the marketplace for economic rewards – support which would otherwise be unavailable to them. Similarly, this programme also ensures active female participation, with a particularly successful lending product for women entrepreneurs.

Here in Lebanon, recent events suggest the possibility of legislative backing, across the political spectrum, for granting to Palestinians and Palestine refugees a range of civil and economic rights denied them for decades. UNRWA fully supports any development that will reverse the longstanding restrictions on Palestine refugees' rights and bring them the dignity they deserve.

These are examples of the seizing and creating of opportunities for refugees that must remain the hallmark of UNRWA.

I would add that an approach oriented around opportunity can only be enhanced when it is complemented by creativity, innovation and refugee participation as a means towards the end of more efficient and effective programmes. UNRWA has sought to achieve this blend in placing children at the centre of the process of acquiring knowledge and skills, in helping the poor escape poverty and in developing new products in our microfinance programme.

In the area of camp improvement and refugee participation, we have – not more than a short drive away from here - the excellent example of planning and reconstruction achievements founded on greater refugee participation and on partnerships with civil society groups. This has been invaluable during the planning phase of the reconstruction of Nahr el Bared camp; an unprecedented challenge for the Agency tasked with rebuilding a town for 30,000 people.

Innovative approaches, especially through consultation with refugees, have facilitated this daunting task, and expanded the concept of reconstruction from physical infrastructure to providing space for new self reliance opportunities in the future.

The challenges to these approaches are formidable. There is the occupation of the Palestinian territory, some features of which I have described through the eyes of the boy from Jabalia, and which, by definition, is the antithesis of human development, stifling opportunities from refugees and other Palestinians.

This occupation also affects UNRWA's operations as it hampers the Agency's ability to implement its very mandate to provide opportunities and help refugees achieve their potential. It diverts resources from the important programmes as we struggle to try to make conditions tolerable under an intolerable situation. And it has physical manifestations which impede our work. While the Agency understands Israel's legitimate security concerns, and has repeatedly condemned the rockets emanating from Gaza and any targeting of civilians, we are regularly frustrated by the limitations placed on our staff's ability to move; to reach those in need; to import the materials needed to help the most vulnerable.

There is as well the lack of resources, with perennial and very grave funding shortfalls preventing UNRWA from achieving improvements in service quality as foreseen by its Medium Term Strategy. In spite of these impediments, UNRWA remains clear and firm in its dedication to the goal of creating and sustaining opportunities for the refugees it serves.

I also take the view that beyond the programme realm, an active approach to seeking and seizing opportunities would also be usefully applied to the search for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This requires promoting a better understanding among international actors of the connection between enhanced living conditions for refugees, broader life choices for them and improved prospects of ensuring that refugees contribute to and support a negotiated solution to the conflict.

Allow me to make a few final observations on the opportunities that refugees represent in the context of the process of negotiating an end to the conflict. The refugees of whom we speak – all 4.7 million of them as well as those in the global Diaspora – are a substantial reservoir of human capital across the Middle East. They constitute, in effect, a massive opportunity waiting to be grasped, and they stand ready to contribute significantly to the socio-economic viability of the region and of a future Palestinian State. Given their numbers and human development potential, Palestine refugees are a formidable constituency for peace with a substantial stake in the stability of the region.

And so what do we, as the international community, do with this population? Do we ignore them? Do we neglect their needs? Do we pass on an opportunity to help them develop? Do we – as the international community – live up to our obligations and our opportunity to impact the future? Or do we leave them to despair; to powerlessness; to others?

I believe it is in everyone's interests to seek to enfranchise the refugee constituency and include the refugee voice in the search for an end to this conflict, and to their plight. No peace process can be implemented; no peace will be stable and lasting without taking into consideration the refugees' role; their wishes; their needs; their concerns; their aspirations. If we find ways to make refugees partners, if we help them develop, then we harness their potential, we create the conditions they need to succeed and to provide them with choice free from ignorance and intolerance. This development is at the very heart of what UNRWA seeks to achieve. To provide each refugee with the opportunities required to live a dignified life and achieve his or her potential and to contribute to his or her society.

This will make refugees contributors, and not a hindrance, to peace; it will allow them to share the wealth of insights they possess and to shape and underwrite the credibility and sustainability of the peace process and its outcomes.

Palestine refugees – their human rights, their aspirations and their concerns – are bound to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in complex and profound ways that place them in a position to influence the realization of durable solutions. The Palestine refugee presence is a reality whose significance and power genuine peacemaking efforts can no longer afford to ignore. Recognizing and mobilizing the refugee constituency has become a necessity that is consistent with principle, and which will certainly pay handsome dividends in terms of the credibility and success of the search for peace.

I will end by asking us to return to the child who joined us from Jabaliya refugee camp earlier in my remarks. I ask that we keep him in our mind's eye alongside the millions of young Palestinians and Palestine refugees whose lives are blighted and shackled by occupation and circumstances of conflict which they had no part in creating, and have no part in justifying. Elsewhere, their potential – the marvellous potential which is the defining feature of every young woman and man – is limited, frustrated and often lost because of growing poverty, declining standards of education, poor health, and other factors.

Yet we must take our inspiration from their fortitude, their ability to carry on amidst perils and limits we can hardly imagine. And whatever inspiration he offers we must use to fuel our own will to act - to act in ways that create the opportunities that enable him to make the right life choices. He, like most refugees, asks nothing more than that we deliver the promises of international law and allow him the chance to lead a normal life. Surely this is not too much to ask.

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