UN's Palestinian Refugee chief on "grim" situation
External relations - 12-11-2008 - 17:07
"Hopelessness, frustration and anger" are how a senior UN official described the feelings of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Karen Koning AbuZayd spoke to us on 11 November after she had met MEPs on the Foreign Affairs and Development Committees. She described the desperate plight of the Palestinians and how Europe is seen as an unbiased broker in peace negotiations.
Appointed in 2005, Ms AbuZayd is Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA).
How bad is the situation of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank?
The situation, especially in Gaza, is extremely bad and it's getting worse all the time because of closures meaning fewer things are allowed in. There's a basic allowance of humanitarian food and medicine.
People have been living on their rations, very basic ones, for eight years, and that's not very healthy, because it's only 60% of the calories they need. People are deprived of almost everything: internet, electricity, etc. We are doing our best to give two thirds of the population primary education and primary health.
The Palestinian refugees would like to leave the camps, mainly for their children's sakes, so their children can have a future. They feel hopelessness, frustration and anger about what they can't offer to their children, there are fathers who cannot put food on the table and who don't have jobs. It's a grim situation and it's getting worse all the time.
How is the situation of the Palestinian refugees in the Near East? (not Gaza and the West Bank). Is the international community doing enough to improve the situation of the refugees in Lebanon after the conflicts in 2006 and 2007?
The situation for Palestinians in Lebanon has always been among the worst, because they were not allowed to work and we were not allowed to improve the living conditions in their camps.
But since 2005 this has changed: the 30,000 people that fled due to the conflicts were living in fairly good conditions. But now they’re unemployed and homeless; they live in prefabricated homes that we’ve built for them. So it will take a lot of work to improve their situation, but with the necessary money they will be ok.
As for the refugees in Syria and Jordan, we hardly ever talk about them since they live in areas where there’s no conflict and where the governments are very good with them - they enjoy full citizens' rights. They can get jobs, go to university…they don’t live in camps as they do in Lebanon. So the refugees there can take care of themselves and do not need all this humanitarian aid.
Do you foresee any change in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians now that a new US president has been elected?
We hope so. He pledged during his campaign to pay attention to this issue if he won the elections! So we will all remind him of that. We hope that he will at least appoint someone of a very high level who will pay attention to this issue full time. We think that that’s important.
What can the EU do to increase its contribution to the peace process in the Middle East?
Talking about contributions, we always need more money (laughs). Of course, with the financial situation in the world we are worried about whether we are going to get more money next year.
In terms of peace process, the EU and Europeans are seen as being balanced in the Middle East; they can speak to both parties and they can convey messages from both parties without being biased.
We also think of Europeans as champions of human rights and international humanitarian law who are demanding these things from their partners, including us and the governments.
We need an inclusive process, a principled one, which is based on rights, the rights of the Palestinians as well as the rights of the Israelis. We believe Europeans are well placed to be able to push that kind of approach and that's what we are appealing for.
Biography: Karen Koning AbuZayd worked for the UNHCR (Office of the UN High Commission for Refugees) for 19 years. As well as time in Sudan and Sierra Leone she spent two years in Sarajevo as Chief of Mission for the High-Commission during the Bosnian war. In 2005 she became Commissioner-General of UNRWA.