60 years later: The challenge of Palestine refugee camps within their Arab host communities
American University of Beirut, 12 February 2008
Friends, colleagues and students of the American University of Beirut, the Issam Fares Institute and the Center for Behavioral Research:
Thank you for inviting me to this inaugural event for your research project on "Public policy and governance challenges of Palestinian Refugee Camps in the Arab World". I commend you for taking this initiative to address a topic that demands attention in this part of the world. With the everyday pressures of delivering services to refugees, we in UNRWA tend to have little time to give to important questions lying beneath the surface of our daily tasks. However, we fully recognize the value of research and intellectual inquiry. As our resources do not allow us to do much of this ourselves, we grasp every chance to support and encourage—and share the results of--this kind of work. So I appreciate this unusual opportunity to speak to an interesting and important subject that I’ve not directly addressed previously in my public statements.
Over the last few days, I have been on one of my regular visits to UNRWA camps. I visited the Khan Younis and Rafah camps in Gaza on Saturday and Zarqa and Talbiyeh camps in Jordan yesterday. In anticipation of giving this lecture, I found myself reflecting on the breadth and complexity of issues surrounding refugee camps in general and about Palestine refugee camps in particular.
The spectrum of human interest matters that are raised in any city or town apply equally to these camps. Like any human habitation, refugee camps evolve. Their borders and features change in parallel to the growth of the population and other developments around them. Since only one-third of the registered Palestine refugee population lives in camps, we tend not always to differentiate our planning and services, except in the infrastructure sector, between those inside and outside camps—another reason to welcome the new project’s focus.
In addition to spatial and demographic questions, there is a cluster of issues pertaining to the socio-economic and political environment of the surrounding host country or authority. As the profile of refugee camps is influenced by the countries and communities in which they are established, each UNRWA field (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, West Bank and Gaza) exhibits its own peculiar features. Among such features are the security and governance structures that affect each camp.
There is also a specific cluster of issues that cuts across fields and host countries. Examples of these include poverty, unemployment and poor living conditions stemming from the 40-60 year history of the refugee presence, from the wider economic climate and from the extent to which refugees have access to economic opportunity.
And I must add yet another set of issues that are unique to Palestine refugees, that is that refugee camps draw an essential part of their nature from the character of the people residing in them, viz. their capabilities, assets and aspirations, and also from their prospects as a people.
While these interlinked issues were on my mind during my visits to the camps, what struck me most powerfully was that "60 years later" in the title of my remarks might more aptly be re-phrased to read "60 years late". For the population of over 4.4 million Palestine refugees UNRWA serves, and equally for the many millions of Palestinians dispersed across the globe, sixty years in exile is an anniversary they would have not wished to be commemorating.
The years have been unkind to the people of Palestine. By whichever measure you employ - humanitarian, human development, human rights or socio-economic – the past sixty years can hardly yield a favourable verdict on the Palestinian condition. Although many Palestinians and Palestine refugees have achieved success in many walks of life, these accomplishments are primarily individual. For Palestinians as a people, the fruits of these years are bitter: armed conflict, repeated displacements, inter-Palestinian divisions, social upheaval and material hardship. Palestinians have also had to contend with political processes which are at one and the same time hectic and static, with grand promises often matched only by the deep disappointment they leave in their wake—and the frustration, anger or hopelessness that accompany such disappointment.
And yet 60 years after what Palestinians refer to as the Naqba, and in spite of the harsh occupation in the West Bank and Gaza and many years of miserable conditions across the Middle East, Palestine refugees will be with us until a just solution is found to their situation – a solution that will satisfy their aspirations, not as individuals, but as a people.
As long as they remain a dominant presence in the Middle East, the issues with which they are associated - notably their quest to live free from occupation, and their desire to realize self-determination and other fundamental human rights - will continue to touch the conscience of the international community. And until their status is resolved within the framework of a just and lasting international settlement, the practical questions posed by their human development needs will remain the concern of UNRWA and other agencies. These are questions that stimulate intellectual inquiry and motivate our efforts to alleviate the severity of the circumstances in Palestine refugees’ lives, and to lend them a hand in their struggle to maintain their human dignity.
I applaud the project being launched this evening and warmly congratulate those who conceived it and brought it into being. From a humanitarian perspective, I recognize the value of this project as part of the broad, ongoing enterprise – in which my Agency and I are engaged - of seeking the protection and care of Palestine refugees during their long period of exile.
In addition to the intellectual and research assets this project will generate, it has the advantage of a dual role. Given its roots in this country and in this city, the American University is able to bring the insights of a community perspective, as well as the rigorous independence of a non-governmental entity. This is a potent combination, which will serve to clarify, and help craft creative solutions for, the myriad practical issues that must be tackled—as those listed in the description of the project.
This evening’s topic is an attempt to touch, however tentatively, upon some of the issues that fall within the purview of the new project.
I believe that the challenge of Palestine refugee camps within host communities is defined by two different but mutually reinforcing currents, namely, the dynamics which preserve Palestine refugees as a distinct group, and the extent to which international law and best global practice can be reflected in the management of refugee camps in this region. I recognize that there are many other dimensions of the challenge presented to host communities. I trust however, that the vantage point of these two aspects may help to shed light on important public policy questions as well as to suggest areas for further investigation by researchers and practitioners.
I will mention briefly few well-known reasons why the relationship between refugee camps and host communities tends to be sensitive. Then I will look at the ways in which international law and the global refugee experience relate to some of the issues raised by the management of refugee camps in this region. In exploring this, I will draw on the global refugee experience to illustrate the parallels.
Palestine refugees as a distinct group
Allow me to begin with some remarks on the issue of Palestine refugees as a distinct group within their host communities. The dynamics of the relationship between refugees and host communities are determined by a variety of historical, cultural, ethnic and temporal factors. Generally speaking, cohesiveness and harmony tend to be promoted when there is affinity of language, culture and religion between the refugee population and the host community, and also where, as is the case in this region, the host community identifies with and supports the aspirations of the refugees. The duration of exile is also an important variable. Assimilation usually becomes more likely as the period of exile lengthens.
But, the Palestinian experience does not quite fit this mold. In Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, it is rather the forces inducing distinctiveness from their hosts that seem to hold most sway.
Refugee camps are differentiated from other habitation zones because their residents define themselves by reference to the experience of forcible dispossession from their homeland. In the Palestinian case, this separateness of refugees and, by extension, the locations where they live, is cemented by several factors.
The conflicts of 1948 and 1967 were uniquely devastating because in addition to the human grief Palestinians experienced from violently losing homes, property and livelihoods, they were also deprived of the State in relation to which their international personality was, and still is, defined. In the absence of a Palestinian State, the quest to create one is itself a foundation for Palestinian solidarity. For this reason, refugee camps serve as much more than places in which to reside. They function as symbolic representations of the Palestinian struggle for statehood and as manifestations of the refusal to allow the privations of the refugee condition to distract them from aspirations of return.
These powerful sentiments on the Palestinian side are given a different connotation from the perspective of host communities. The absence of a Palestinian State means that there is no concrete basis upon which host communities can realistically expect the plight of refugees to be resolved in the immediate or foreseeable future (this being obvious after 60 years!). This is a potential source of tension where Palestine refugees are perceived as chronic long-stayers competing for scarce local and national resources.
The stakes are considerably higher when issues of demography come into play on the national plane of host countries, not least those whose realities already include strong factional interests and fragile political consensus. According to one study, the Palestinian population, which stood at some 1.3 million in 1948, is now well over 10 million across the globe. Where the Palestinian population grows at a rate faster than that of the communities which host them, lingering questions of competition are aggravated by delicate issues of demographic balance, proportion, and in some instances, political representation.
Law and practice in the global refugee experience
Over the last few minutes, I have suggested some reasons behind the tendency for Palestinians to retain their distinctiveness in exile. It would be fair to say that in some instances, this tendency has contributed to a measure of isolation and a related inclination towards differential treatment by some host communities. The issues raised in these instances ultimately engage the responsibility of States and other authorities, and therefore fall within the purview of international law and practice.
The international context is relevant first because refugees are entitled to a range of protections under international law. This entitlement is triggered when the protection of the refugees’ country of origin is lost at the time of their flight. The entitlement is grounded in the imperative to preserve fundamental freedoms and human dignity and draws its force from the peremptory character of norms requiring States and other entities to protect and promote that dignity. The upshot of these precepts is that Palestine refugees, wherever they reside – whether in camps or outside camps - should be treated in conformity with human rights law, international humanitarian law and international law in general.
States bear the primary responsibility to ensure that refugees residing within their jurisdiction are treated in a manner consistent with international law. From this flows the duty of host countries and authorities to ensure the safety and security of refugee camps and to promote the rule of law within and around them. The role of humanitarian agencies, critical as it may be, is to support and complement that of the State.
The significance of international law is reinforced by the relevance of the global experience in the management of camps. Refugee camps are as old as the phenomenon of mass population movements across frontiers. Over the decades, they have been the trigger and testing ground for the practical application of principles of asylum, human rights and the protection of civilians in armed conflict, all of which are now cornerstones of the modern framework for international protection of refugees.
The issues exercising countries and authorities hosting Palestine refugees in our region are similar if not identical to those which other refugee-hosting countries have confronted for decades, and continue to grapple with. Take as one example, the issue of security inside refugee camps and its connection with the security of the host country. During the proxy wars that blighted South America in the late 1970s and 1980s, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and Guatemalans who found refuge in camps and settlements in the sub-region were to a greater or lesser extent identified with the armed struggle to "liberate" their respective countries. This posed a number of thorny challenges to host countries and humanitarian agencies. Of particular importance was the problem of compliance with the well-established principle that places of refuge must be entirely humanitarian and non-belligerent in character. How could host countries and refugee agencies ensure that the camps were free of armed elements whose presence violated humanitarian principles and also served to attract cross-border attacks from opponents in neighbouring countries?
No less dramatic dilemmas were presented in the southern African context during the wars of liberation from colonialism the 1980s. This was a heady period. The struggles for independence from apartheid, colonialism and minority rule attracted virtually unanimous international support for refugees from South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. This support was often translated into unquestioned backing for the leaders and members of the liberation movements who maintained a dominant presence in refugee camps. Among these was the African National Congress (ANC) which led the fight against apartheid in South Africa and their Namibian counterparts, the South West Africa Peoples Organization (SWAPO).
It is interesting to recall that these essentially militant political organizations often assisted humanitarian agencies to manage refugee camps and humanitarian services within them, even if some of their activities may not have been entirely compatible with the humanitarian character of refugee camps.
The experience with refugees from Rwanda, Congo and Burundi in the Great Lakes region in the mid-1990s took these issues to an even higher level of gravity. The sheer size of the refugee population coupled with the intensity of the conflict and the degree of militancy meant that to the present time, refugee camps exert a destabilizing influence across the entire region. There are many other similar examples, as in refugee camps in south-east Asia and South Asia, including Pakistan and Iran.
I have suggested that Palestine refugees share a strong common identity built around their narrative of persecution and survival in exile. I have also spoken of how international law and the global refugee experience are relevant to the issues raised by Palestine refugee camps. Is the global refugee experience relevant to the situation in Lebanon and elsewhere the Middle East? This is indeed a question worthy of debate and further inquiry and one which I leave you, as researchers and experts to pursue. If, however, past experience is a reliable guide, I would expect the answer to revolve around the unique character of the Palestine refugee condition and the special circumstances of each host country and authority in this region.
Concluding remarks: current situation in Lebanon
Before concluding my remarks, I would like to make brief mention of the Palestine refugee condition in Lebanon. In many respects, the Palestinian experience in Lebanon exemplifies the bitter fruits I referred to earlier. Deep, unremitting poverty and grim living conditions are the reality for the majority of refugees, including many of the 53 per cent who live outside camps. The refugee camps themselves occupy the same land area as they did in 1948, although the registered population has almost quadrupled. The material hardships faced by Palestine refugees are compounded – and in some cases caused – by labour market and other restrictions. In the summer of 2005, the government announced the easing of these restrictions though to minimum concrete effect so far.
In these circumstances, UNRWA’s services are a vital lifeline for Palestine refugees. Through health care, education and support to the poor we strive to address the needs of those who are most vulnerable, even though we struggle with shortfalls in contributions to our General Fund. We remain gravely concerned that conditions in the camps reduce the impact of our primary health care services and that lack of employment potential discourages young people from pursuing an education, with children dropping out well before the end of their basic education.
UNRWA and the Palestine refugees we serve are fortunate to have in Prime Minister Siniora and his government a partner genuinely devoted to improving the situation and prospects of refugees. We are gratified for the active support the Lebanese government continues to give to our country-wide camp improvement programme and for its initiative to provide identity documentation to Palestinians who are without such. And we look forward to partnership with the government and other entities in the reconstruction and recovery efforts in Nahr El Bared.
In current conditions there can be no human security, human dignity, or human development for the overwhelming majority of Palestine refugees. Conditions such as these remind us that while questions of international law, state responsibility, and the management of refugee camps are significant, our most pressing priority in Lebanon should be to ensure decent living conditions and sustainable livelihoods for Palestine refugees living in and out of camps.
Finally, I hope I have provided some food for thought on issues that require much more reflection and clarity (including by me and my colleagues), issues which from UNRWA’s humanitarian and human development point of view might motivate your research and policy development work.
For us in UNRWA, there is no greater reward than making a positive difference in the lives of Palestine refugees. I am confident that your project will contribute to this same goal.