UNRWA is most grateful that all of you have taken the time to be at this high-level conference, given competing pressing demands on your attention. This is an extraordinary occasion, and we are going through extraordinary times.
While there are established fora to discuss issues pertaining to UNRWA and Palestine refugees, and we are part of an annual Pledging Conference at United Nations Headquarters in New York, the holding of this high-level conference is not simply opportune, but necessary, in the circumstances. And UNRWA, and I personally, are most appreciative of the Swiss authorities, who are co-hosting this event.
I would like to refer briefly to those aspects of UNRWA and our role which are extraordinary and special in themselves, and which have merited the holding of this conference.
UNRWA was established almost 55 years ago. It was conceived as a temporary programme to deal with refugees who had lost their homes and/or livelihood in that part of Mandatory Palestine which became the State of Israel. Originally, the thinking and the hope of the international community was that matters would be resolved within a few years, and, meanwhile, the refugees required emergency humanitarian relief.
In a stroke of vision and good sense, a component was introduced of what today is called “development”, “income-generation” and “self-reliance” – the antithesis of welfare. This led to the “works” part of our name.
Hence, when the United Nations itself was in its infancy, it developed one of its earliest programmes as a mix of relief and development, something which the international community struggles to combine even today.
Unfortunately, the “temporary” is still with us. UNRWA is still here, mandated to continue to provide “relief” and “works” assistance and support to a Palestine refugee population which has grown to over 4 million registered refugees.
Over the decades, in the face of wars, conflict and ensuing turbulence, UNRWA has had to deal with waves of first-time, second-time and third-time refugees. It has had to deal with one ad hoc situation after another. Each time it seemed that the most severe problems had been dealt with, matters grew worse, and UNRWA was asked via resolutions and other instruments, to take on additional tasks.
Sometimes, adequate resources have been made available by the international community to meet existing and additional needs, arising from demographic growth, rising costs, and new activities.
At other times, the financial contributions has not covered even minimal needs. And the issue of resources is only part of the problem: force majeure, difficulties, impediments, problems – all these affect our ability to provide services.
This inability affects the refugee community in many ways: it is a massive violation of the principles of humanitarian relief; it leads to setbacks in the benefits and achievements gained slowly and painstakingly over the years; it has a negative effect on stability and calm; it furthers the perception in the refugee community that the world pays less attention to their claims and needs; and the fury and ire aroused by events and perception of events, in the area and in the region, make a fragile situation difficult and untenable.
The situation in which UNRWA, and Palestine refugee communities, find themselves in today, should be seen in the context of an inexorable and escalating worsening in their daily lives. Every decade has been marked by events which have had some positive, but largely negative, consequences:
To recount briefly:
The Palestine refugee population is at a crucial juncture: as in many developing countries around the world, the benefits of available and efficient primary health care have led to sharp drops in child mortality and increases in life expectancy. As a result, the age pyramid of this population shows a very broad base, with 33 % of the refugees under 14 years of age, and a very broad middle: 57 % are between 15 and 59 years old. The consequence is simple: we are faced with a cohort of refugees in their prime, enjoying a good level of health and literacy. It will be followed by another large cohort, those currently under 14 years of age.
At this important juncture, what role model will they follow? That of the hooded, gun-slinging militant, or that of the modern young computer whiz? Will it be graduation caps and gowns or will it be unemployment and forced idleness? Will it be pride in achievement or pride in destruction? Will it be self-confidence and tolerance, or cynicism and bigotry?
Self-evidently, half of the Palestine refugees to whom I am referring are women. At UNRWA we take pride in having reached gender parity in our schools early on in our existence. Still, there is certainly scope for improvement. We have undertaken a thorough analysis of what else UNRWA could do to liberate fully the potential of Palestine refugee women.
The “youth bulge” is both a blessing and a challenge: it can present the opportunity of significant socio-economic development in the region, or it can become a harbinger of unemployment and disaffection. We cannot afford to disappoint the Palestine refugee youth, not only because our failure to secure their future would come back to haunt us, but also because we would have sorely failed in our mission. It is with them foremost in our mind that we have developed a vision for the coming years, which aims at ensuring the following:
This is why we are here: