Who UNRWA is, and what we do

Unfortunately, the initial optimism behind the establishment of UNRWA proved unfounded.

unrwa 88 (photo credit: )
unrwa 88
(photo credit: )
As frequently as times and seasons change, so do allegations against UNRWA emerge in the media, often at moments of political uncertainty. Hence it is with some weariness that I address the latest spate of articles stating that "UNRWA perpetuates the refugee problem." UNRWA was established in 1949 to provide humanitarian assistance to Palestine refugees while a solution was being sought to the conflict that caused hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. At the time, many believed that the conflict would be resolved quickly, allowing refugees to return to their homes and to normal lives. Unfortunately, that initial optimism proved unfounded. A lasting solution - indeed a solution of any kind - has so far eluded all of those who attempted to find it. As a direct result of the absence of a political settlement, the United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly extended my agency's mandate. Post readers will be aware of the vexed and complicated nature of Israeli-Palestinian issues and will appreciate that it makes no sense to blame UNRWA for the failure of the international community to bring closure to these issues. UNRWA took on the challenge it was given and is proud of its role in providing primary education, primary health care and a social safety net to over four million refugees now living in the region over the past 56 years. It has empowered refugees through targeted micro credit schemes, often specifically benefiting women. And in times of armed conflict and humanitarian crises, as have prevailed since late 2000, it is UNRWA that has offered emergency assistance to those in need, helping to ameliorate the suffering caused by years of violence, severe economic crisis and wide-scale destruction. It is to UNRWA that the international community turns to deliver these crucial services. Throughout its history, the agency has contributed to the human development of the refugees under its care. Five hundred thousand children, half of them girls, enthusiastically attend over-crowded schools each day in the hope that studying hard will give them an exit from poverty and a better life for their own children. UNRWA's primary health care program has managed to rid their lives of communicable diseases. Our relief and social services programs have focused on the most vulnerable among refugees and striven to help them pull themselves out of poverty and dependency. In doing all of this, UNRWA has aimed to replace despair with hope, bitterness with enthusiasm, anger with tolerance. THE COUNTRIES who fund the agency appreciate the work we do under difficult circumstances and realize full well that we also contribute a measure of normalcy and stability in a region wracked by recurrent turmoil; all this at the minimal cost of roughly 80 US cents per refugee per year. A curious point is often made by those who express misgivings about UNRWA's role: If only it were left to UNHCR, it is claimed, the refugees would all be settled somewhere and the problem would be solved. As a former staff member of UNHCR myself, I know as well as anyone that UNHCR is mandated to offer refugees three options to resolve their status as refugees and place them on the path to resuming normal lives: local integration, resettlement in third countries, or return to their home country. These solutions depend on favorable political circumstances and on the causes of refugee flight being resolved. The solutions must also be accepted voluntarily by the refugees themselves. For UNHCR, the return of refugees to their homes, once conflict has subsided, is considered the preferred solution. But here, the stalemate is clear: The Palestine refugees, and the countries that host them, deem the first two options unacceptable, while the third is rejected by Israel. It is further often claimed that children of refugees under UNHCR's care are not considered refugees. This is simply not the case, as refugees the world over remain so until one of the solutions mentioned above is agreed. As UNHCR's Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for determining Refugee Status provides in paragraph 184: "If the head of a family meets the criteria of the definition, [for refugee status] his dependants are normally granted refugee status according to the principle of family unity." Unsurprisingly, no-one wishes for a quick solution more than the refugees themselves: Being a refugee is not a plight one would wish upon anyone. Under the Oslo Agreements, the refugee question is considered one of the final status issues which the parties must address and solve within the framework of a comprehensive peace agreement. It is our fervent hope that one day such an agreement will be reached, that a just and lasting solution will be found for the refugees and that UNRWA will be able to hand over its schools and health centers, solemnly fold its UN flags and consider its mandate fulfilled. Until that longed-for day arrives, UNRWA's 27,000-strong Palestinian staff, and the handful of "internationals" who accompany them will continue to do their best to afford Palestine refugees the human development and human dignity to which they are surely entitled. The writer is commissioner-general of UNRWA, based in Gaza.