UN Palestinian refugee agency ‘part of the problem’: Swiss minister

Photo showing Palestinians from Gaza break their fast on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan near the border with Israel, May 17, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 17 May 2018
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UN Palestinian refugee agency ‘part of the problem’: Swiss minister

GENEVA: The UN agency for Palestinian refugees is fueling “unrealistic” hopes of return after 70 years of exodus and is therefore helping keep the Mideast conflict alive, Switzerland’s foreign minister said Thursday.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)was established after the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948, when around 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled.
But Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis pointed out that the number of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza has swelled to more than five million.
“It is unrealistic that this dream (of return) will be fulfilled for all,” he said in an interview given to several German-language papers owned by the Swiss NZZ group.
“But UNRWA maintains this hope. For me, the question is whether UNRWA is part of the solution or part of the problem,” he said, concluding that “it is both.”
The UN agency, he said, “worked as a solution for a long time, but today it has become part of the problem.”
“It provides ammunition to continue the conflict. For as long as Palestinians live in refugee camps, they will want to return to their homeland,” he said.
“By supporting UNRWA, we are keeping the conflict alive.”
His comments came after a month and a half of mass protests and clashes along the Gaza border, calling for Palestinian refugees to be able to return to their homes now inside Israel.
The largest demonstrations coincided with the move of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Monday, which saw Israeli forces kill some 60 Palestinians, pushing the overall toll well over 100.
UNRWA is meanwhile struggling to cover a massive budget shortfall, after major donor Washington slashed its 2018 funding.
The administration of US President Donald Trump has opted to cut the $360 million offered in 2017 to a commitment of just $60 million this year, leaving UNRWA scrambling to raise nearly half a billion dollars to guarantee services until the end of the year.
Switzerland is among a group of countries who together pledged about $100 million in March to help fill the shortfall.
Despite his skepticism of the role UNRWA is playing in the Middle East, Cassis warned the sudden funding cut facing the agency posed “a big risk.”
“Millions of Palestinians could take to the streets,” he said, cautioning that lacking funds could cause the breakdown of a “machinery that provides stability.”
“This is a risk that Switzerland cannot afford,” he said.
Cassis said his country would continue funding UNRWA, but he also called for a heavier focus on integrating Palestinian refugees into their host communities.
He said for instance that “instead of supporting UNRWA schools and hospitals, we could help the Jordanian institutions promote integration of Palestinian refugees.”


Jumblatt expresses concern over torture of Syrian refugees

Syrian children are pictured at a refugee camp in the village of Mhammara in the northern Lebanese Akkar region on March 9, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 19 March 2019
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Jumblatt expresses concern over torture of Syrian refugees

  • UN official stresses ‘urgent need to ensure’ their ‘safe, voluntary and dignified return’
  • Some 215,000 Syrian students are currently enrolled in Lebanon's schools 

BEIRUT: Lebanese Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt has expressed concern about reports that Syrian refugees returning to their country from Lebanon face torture and murder.

This coincides with a debate in Lebanon about whether Syrian refugees should return without waiting for a political solution to the conflict in their country. 

UN Special Coordinator Jan Kubis stressed after meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Monday the “urgent need to ensure the safe, voluntary and dignified return of Syrian refugees home, according to international humanitarian norms.” 

Kubis added: “The UN and the humanitarian community will continue to facilitate these returns as much as possible. Another very important message was also to support the host communities here in Lebanon.”

Mireille Girard, representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), on Monday said: “The reconstruction process in Syria may not be enough to attract refugees to return. We are working to identify the reasons that will help them to return.”

She added: “The arrival of aid to the refugees is an element of trust that helps them to return. Their dignity and peaceful living must be ensured.”

Social Affairs Minister Richard Kouyoumdjian said the Lebanese General Security “issued lists containing the names of refugees wishing to return to their homes, but the Syrian regime accepted only about 20 percent of them.”

He added: “The solution is to call on the international community to put pressure on Russia, so that Moscow can exert pressure on (Syrian President) Bashar Assad’s regime to show goodwill and invite Syrian refugees to return to their land without conditions, procedures, obstacles and laws that steal property and land from them.”

Lebanese Education Minister Akram Chehayeb said: “The problem is not reconstruction and infrastructure, nor the economic and social situation. The main obstacle is the climate of fear and injustice in Syria.”

He added: “There are 215,000 Syrian students enrolled in public education in Lebanon, 60,000 in private education, and there are informal education programs for those who have not yet attended school to accommodate all children under the age of 18.” 

Chehayeb said: “As long as the displacement crisis continues, and as long as the (Assad) regime’s decision to prevent the (refugees’) return stands … work must continue to absorb the children of displaced Syrians who are outside education to protect Lebanon today and Syria in the future.”