Refugee plight shouldn’t be forgotten amid noise of battle

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg

Yossi Mekelberg


By : Yossi Mekelberg


As the winter is fast approaching and the skies over Syria are filling with jet fighters from almost every corner of the world, it is important to remember also the plight of the refugees and displaced people in the region.

For the first time since the end of the Second World War there are more than 59 million people around the globe who are either refugees, displaced or asylum seekers. It is not a phenomenon that is unique to the Middle East, though the region has definitely had more than its fair share. These people who lost their homes, livelihood and often their way of life, represent a grave facet of the human cost of not preventing or ending conflicts.

Those who block a peaceful solution are the ones who are quick to criticise the role of UNWRA and its work.

Yossi Mekelberg

There are more than 19 million refugees worldwide, and of them 5.2 million are Palestinian, who are cared for by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which was established 65 years ago. Considering the ever increasing needs and demands, limited resources and the constantly changing political terrain, what is requested of UNWRA is nothing short of performing miracles. The case of the Palestinian refugees presents somewhat different challenges than other refugee communities. Their prolonged predicament, since 1948, combined with contradictory international pressures and the lack of a satisfying, let alone just, political solution in the offing make their case rather unique.

Four generations of refugees

The tragedy of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is to a large extent epitomized by the suffering of four generations of Palestinian refugees, who are dispersed between Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. Without a political solution, their status and conditions are likely to remain quite grim.

It is made worse in places ravaged by war and conflict. For UNWRA the irony is that in an ideal world there would not be any need for it to exist. A genuine political solution providing a comprehensive and just solution for the refugees would make the role of the agency redundant. However, those who block a peaceful solution are the ones who are quick to criticise the role of UNWRA and its work. Rhetoric aside, in the absence of peace it is an imperative that the humanitarian and developmental needs of the Palestinian refugees across the region are met. These needs can only successfully be provided for through close cooperation between UNWRA, the donor countries which provide the financial support, the host countries and the refugees themselves.

Failure to find permanent solution

No one but UNWRA has the devotion, leadership and expertise to sustain so many refugees in such a complex and uncertain environment and to operate with limited resources. It provides shelter, education, health, social services, and microfinance. Nevertheless, its very existence is a constant reminder of the failure to find a permanent solution. This also creates duality in the attitude of the refugees to UNWRA. As grateful as they are to UNWRA for its services, for being a voice for them and even creating employment, for them it also represents the failure to bring an end to their status as refugees.

Israel’s cynical criticism of UNWRA’s work deliberately ignores the fact that the agency spares it from taking responsibility for the dire conditions of the refugees, especially in Gaza and the West Bank, which it largely created.

Yossi Mekelberg

It is also the unwarranted duality in the Israeli government’s approach, and that of some of the donor countries, that complicates the work of the organisation. Israel’s cynical criticism of UNWRA’s work deliberately ignores the fact that the agency spares it from taking responsibility for the dire conditions of the refugees, especially in Gaza and the West Bank, which it largely created. Israel blames UNWRA for perpetuating the Palestinian refugee issue and for taking political sides with the Palestinians. Conveniently, Israeli governments, present and past, employed these arguments, ignoring that their intransigence contributed to the lack of a long-term solution for the Palestinian refugees.

UNWRA’s challenges have constantly increased since its inception. The combination of prolonged occupation in the West Bank, blockade and periodical wars in Gaza and the growing political instability in some of the host countries, have a great impact on the organization. It became a tragic routine in Gaza, which endured three massive rounds of hostilities with Israel, which in addition to the appalling loss of lives, also saw infrastructure including housing, hospitals and schools destroyed or at least badly damaged. This delays any plans for continuous development.

Syria: A new dilemma

The civil war in Syria presented a whole new set of issues for the lives of refugees and UNWRA employees. Fourteen members of the organisation’s staff have been killed since the beginning of the conflict in Syria and thirteen are missing. Self-evidently there is a growing demand for UNWRA’s services in the Palestinian refugee camps of Syria, and for those who fled to Lebanon and Jordan and became refugees for the second time in their history.

One of the paradoxes for those who lead UNWRA, especially in these difficult times, is conducting long-term planning without being seen as acknowledging that millions of Palestinians are going to remain refugees for the foreseeable future. Another irony is that the organization is prohibited from having a political view, though it operates in one of the most political environments.

UNWRA is obviously not an organisation of miracle workers, yet for those who follow this U.N. agency closely, it seems to work wonders for the people it looks after and it does so in partnership with the refugees. The organization’s latest winter campaign Share Your Warmth, aimed at helping help the most vulnerable Palestinian refugees to survive harsh winter conditions, is just another manifestation of UNWRA’s important work. Nonetheless, the miracle that everyone should hope for and work towards is finding a just political solution for the millions of Palestinian refugees. A miracle that would make the need for UNWRA obsolete. In the meantime, the organization and its people need all the international support they can get.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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