Fifty years ago this month, the United Nations began a unique humanitarian undertaking that continues today, unknown to most of the world, but still critically important to nearly 4 million Palestine refugees — and to the cause of peace. There is no larger group of refugees anywhere else in the world; indeed, it is bigger than the entire population of Ireland.

The landmark anniversary of this U.N. institution, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East is no cause for celebration, but rather serves as a painful reminder that the long and tragic saga of the Palestine refugees has yet to reach its conclusion. The refugees, who account for roughly half the world’s Palestinian population, have for five decades endured conditions of extreme hardship — as a dispossessed, stateless and largely impoverished population in “temporary” exile in the host countries and occupied territories.

But the picture is not all bleak. Nearly half a million refugee girls and boys attend U.N. schools, which employ some 13,000 teachers. The agency promoted gender parity in its schools from the start and in 1962 opened the first residential college for women in the region. Since then, more than 57,000 young refugees have graduated from its eight training colleges. A certificate from these centers has long been regarded as a benchmark among qualifications for higher-level jobs in the Arab world.

By fostering such skills and other economic opportunities, the U.N. has played a crucial role in preventing the refugees from being isolated or marginalized. In providing them a lifeline, it has also served as a stabilizing force in a volatile region. But donor contributions have not kept pace with need; it would be a tragedy if, at this critical juncture, financial constraints jeopardized these achievements.

It was in May 1950 that UNRWA began assisting three-quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs who had been displaced from their homes and land in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and had taken refuge in countries bordering the new state of Israel. The new agency had a U.N. General Assembly mandate “to prevent conditions of starvation and distress” among the refugees and “to further conditions of peace and stability.”

Since then, UNRWA has been providing humanitarian assistance and basic social services to the Palestine refugees, now numbering some 3.7 million people, scattered across Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. One-third of these refugees still live in camps set up after their initial dispersion and the subsequent displacement of Palestinians in the June war of 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza.

The plight of the refugees is most acutely felt in the 59 camps where more than a million of them still live, and where U.N. services are concentrated. Conditions in the camps are poor. Most camp residents live in ramshackle cement-block shelters with corrugated iron roofs. Many of these shelters incorporate the basic “units” — simple rooms with cement floors and perhaps one window — that UNRWA built for the refugees in the early 1950s.

In the crowded camps, open drains are commonplace and paved roads are rare. Population densities are among the highest in the world: Beach Camp, in the Gaza Strip, has over 70,000 inhabitants crammed into half a square kilometer. Refugees not living in camps reside mostly in the poorer quarters of cities like Beirut, Damascus and Amman. For some refugees living in towns, conditions are even worse than in the camps, where the U.N. takes care of sanitation and other services.

In the absence of a political solution to the refugee problem, the agency’s role has evolved as conditions in the area have changed. The emphasis has shifted from meeting immediate needs for food, clothing and shelter, to providing education, health and other public services. Today, the agency operates a network of facilities, including 650 schools, eight community-college level vocational training centers and 122 primary health-care clinics.

UNRWA is the main health-care provider for the refugees, and its medical centers receive over 7 million patient visits a year. It also supports a network of community centers and offers material assistance and poverty-alleviation programs for more than 50,000 destitute refugee families.

Yet, as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said recently, “Despite this record and the urgent need to create economic and social conditions . . . conducive to peace, UNRWA today finds itself in a state of financial strangulation.”

To run its programs, costing some $350 million a year, UNRWA depends solely on voluntary contributions from the world community, almost entirely from governments. But donor contributions have not kept pace with needs, and annual expenditure per refugee has fallen from $200 in 1975 to only $70 today. Resource constraints are becoming critical as needs grow: Each year, agency schools must accommodate 10,000 additional pupils in Gaza alone.

For the past half-century, through UNRWA, the international community has invested in Palestinian human resources, enabling many refugees to break out of dependency to become productive members of society. The U.N. agency is a symbol of international concern about the Palestinian issue. To the refugees over these 50 years, the U.N. flag flying over hundreds of schools and clinics and other centers throughout the Middle East has stood as a reminder that the world has not forgotten them.

The agency has also reshaped its role to stress income generation and employment — with a particular emphasis on women, who in many refugee families are the main wage earners. UNRWA has also pioneered microcredit lending programs for refugees in the Palestinian-ruled areas. The aim is to enable the refugees to become self-reliant.

The refugee problem is a key issue to be discussed in the “final status” phase of Middle East peace negotiations. A just, durable and comprehensive peace settlement in the region will require as partners a viable and self-reliant Palestinian community. The U.N.’s continuing contribution to this objective is essential.

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