“Without UNRWA, the threat to peace and security in the Middle East would undoubtedly be far greater.”
UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon
On 8 December 2009, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, will be sixty years old. Following the Arab-Israel conflict of 1948, UNRWA was established by the United Nations General Assembly to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees. Today some 4.7 million Palestine refugees in UNRWA’s five fields of operations – Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank including East Jerusalem – are eligible for the Agency’s services.
While UNRWA’s 60th anniversary provides an occasion for sober reflection on Palestinian exile, it also affords a moment to consider the contribution that the Agency’s programmes have made to a better life for generations of Palestine refugees. Through UNRWA’s programmes and emergency activities, carried out by a staff of over 29,000, refugees experience the practical application of a range of human rights relating to education, health, a decent standard of living, economic opportunity, human dignity and the right to life. Primary education and healthcare, social safety-net interventions, the building and maintenance of homes and infrastructure, and microfinance services, are the tangible results of UNRWA’s positive impact on the live of Palestinians, at the individual and community level.
UNRWA’s record in education is impressive. Through times of strife in the Middle East, as well as times of relative calm, generations of Palestine refugees have received their first years of education in UNRWA schools. Today, the Agency provides free education to some 500,000 pupils enrolled in its 689 schools and employs 22,000 educational staff. Sixty years after its establishment, UNRWA operates one of the largest school systems in the Middle East. It uses curricula of host countries, but enriched with course material devised specifically by the agency on human rights, tolerance and conflict resolution. Conveying to the next generation a sense of universal values in a region beset by radicalism is an incalculably valuable contribution.
More important, since its establishment, UNRWA has made gender parity in education a priority, welcoming girls into its schools from the start. In 1951, the proportion of female pupils was 26 per cent. Gender equity in enrolment was achieved in the 1960s and has been maintained ever since.
UNRWA’s work in the field of primary health care has had a considerable impact. Despite the difficult conditions in which Palestine refugees live, diseases preventable by vaccines and other communicable diseases have been kept under control. Between the 1960s and 2006, a drop in infant mortality rates from 16 to 22 percent was achieved. This exceeds the World Health Organization (WHO) target for middle income countries. Today, UNRWA’s health care programme is delivered by its own doctors and some 4,000 in 137 busy facilities, where the focus is on mother and child care, family planning and disease prevention. UNRWA’s clinics currently receive around 10 million patient visits per year.
“The Palestinian experience of recent
years and the travail of the present,
daunting as these are, must not be
the sole measure of prospects for the
future. I prefer to dwell on the range
of possibilities that exist in the rich social
and cultural Palestinian heritage,
the Palestinian affi nity for knowledge,
learning and professional skills, and
the capacity of the Palestinian people
for economic self-reliance. It is on
these attributes – and on the genuine
thirst for peace among the majority of
Palestinian civilians - that hope for the
UNRWA will remain dedicated to nurturing these possibilities through its human development work, and by its commitment to the values of neutrality, non-violence and respect for the human rights of all.”
UNRWA Commissioner-General, Karen Koning AbuZayd
In addition, UNRWA has implemented other successful programmes in different domains that have contributed to the development of the Palestinian population and the assistance to those who are the most needed. Thus, since 1983, UNRWA’s Relief and Social Services department has concentrated its efforts on the poorest of the poor. Basic food supplies and cash subsidies, as well as emergency cash grants and adequate shelter to the most vulnerable refugees are provided by these services, currently dealing with over 260,000 special hardship cases.
In an aim to promote economic development and to alleviate poverty among Palestine refugees, the Microfi nance and Microenterprise department was established in 1991. Since then, more than 180,000 loans have been awarded with a value of about 200 million USD, targeting at women, lowincome households and microentrepreneurs among others.
Throughout its sixty years of operation, UNRWA has been continually challenged by crises stemming from confl ict and political instability in its areas of operation. In response to the changing needs of refugees, the Agency has established new services that deal with the consequences of protracted violence and insecurity. In the recent Gaza fi ghting, UNRWA continued to work quite literally under fi re standing shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinian people just as it has done through sixty years of confl ict, exile and dispossession. In the most fraught of circumstances, UNRWA staff in Gaza continued food distributions and emergency health care provision to a million refugees, a fact that has done much to shore up the credibility of the United Nations on the Arab street and in the Middle East region more widely. Moreover, just a week after the end of the war, UNRWA opened all its schools in Gaza to 200,000 refugee children. Human development work was resumed immediately after the fi ghting – a pattern that has been repeated by the Agency many times during its 60-year presence amid the turbulence of the Middle East.
Advancing respect for the human rights of Palestine refugees is implicit in UNRWA’s human development and humanitarian work, which exemplifi es the efforts of the international community to promote social justice and to protect the most vulnerable. UNRWA’s protection role includes international advocacy. This entails stressing the entitlements of Palestine refugees under international law and reminding States and political actors of their obligations under human rights instruments as well as international humanitarian law.
All these achievements well deserve a commemoration. Already during the UN General Assembly in New York last September, a series of events took place at the UN Headquarters. This series was inaugurated with the unveiling of UNRWA’s@60 banner by UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, Karen AbuZayd, and Palestinian President, Mahmud Abbas. On a background featuring dozens of young faces, a vision of the next generation, and carrying the words, “Peace starts here”, the banner covered for the fi rst time the façade of the General Assembly. The unveiling was then followed by a ministerial meeting to discuss the role of UNRWA and endorse its future operations. In early May, a football match between the Belgian and the Palestinian teams was organised in Brussels. Also in late June and late October a fund-raising concert and play took place in Vienna and New York respectively. More events will be held in other locations in the coming months.