The briefing concerning the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was highly expected by us, as many of us wanted to have a clear insight on the concrete work of the United Nations in the management of the Middle East conflict. First of all, our speaker, Mister Saahir Lone, Senior Liaison Officer at UNRWA, wanted to clarify that UNRWA was not handling the pursuit of a solution in the Middle East conflict, but the management of the refugees resulting from this conflict. UNRWA is a development agency reporting to the General Assembly.
Mr. Lone was very passionate about his work. He explained to us why it was so important to maintain the functioning process of UNRWA even if the agency is in place since 1948. He worked four years in the field and it gave him the opportunity to realize how useful the United Nations was. It is crucial to realize that without this agency the situation would be even worse in the region than it is already now. The economic collapse that followed the deepening of the conflict has brought more refugees than before. Moreover, since the Hamas recovered the Gaza Strip, the things are far from getting better and it has created real difficulties from a socio-economic point of view.
4.5 millions Palestine Refugees are helped by UNRWA. Managing such a large amount of refugees requires a large organization: There are currently 28,000 people working for the agency, but only 3 persons are stationed in New York as they want to focus on the concrete help for Refugees. More than 90% of the staff is Palestinian for both economic and practical reasons; a special class was created to enable the formation of the Palestinian personnel. The agency centers its work on education and health (more than 9 million medical consultations are run every year). 660 schools are actually run by the United Nations which explains why a large part of the people working for UNRWA is actually teachers.
Even if Education and health are the priorities, the alimentary assistance has turned to be a central focus of UNRWA due to the deep economic recession following the conflict in 2000. Nowadays, 80% of the population live below the poverty line, while before the worsening of the conflict, “only” 20% were. Today, 1.2 million people receive food aid.
The United Nations is not the only organization active in the Middle East to help Palestinian Refugees; the World Food Programme is also very active. They entertain a constant dialogue in order to avoid existing projects from overlapping one another. Indeed, even if UNRWA is very well supported by the Developed Countries, there is, however, a lack of financing, which can turn to be difficult to handle in case of emergency crisis. UNRWA operations are financed almost entirely by voluntary contributions from governments and the European Union, which account for 95 per cent of all income. The Agency’s largest donors in 2006 were the European Commission, the United States, Sweden, Canada and the United Kingdom. As of 30 November 2007, the United States, the European Commission, Sweden, the Norway and United Kingdom are its largest contributors.
Mr. Lone left us enough time for our questions. Many were interested in knowing more about the position of UNRWA concerning the political situation in the country. Mister Lone therefore stressed that UNRWA was first of all a human development organization and not a political one. Even if UNRWA has raised concerns during the conflict in Lebanon, it was more in a humanitarian perspective than a political one. The solution of the conflict has to be found within the parties and the Security Council, UNRWA has been established only to help the refugees and nothing more.
The final goal of UNRWA would be to finally stop its activities, as it will mean that a solution of the Middle East conflict has been found and, as a result, the Refugees could be reintegrated into their home as provided by the right of return.