May 19, 2004, International Herald Tribune, Comment:
A TOUR OF THE PALESTINIAN REFUGEE CAMPS By Peter Hansen If you find yourself in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon or the occupied Palestinian territory, go and visit aPalestinian refugee camp and take a look around.On your tour you’ll see alleyways so narrow that the dead need to be removed upright, because coffins cannot negotiate the twisting lanes. Peer into the concrete refugee shelters, some scarcely better than Dickensian hovels, and you will see families of 13 or more share a room with no windows. In some especially benighted places you will meet mothers who sleep with their babies on their laps, to keep them safe from rats.If you’re unlucky enough to visit during the rains of winter, you’ll see how the sewage that is fly-specked and rank in the heat of summer now floods into these wretched homes.Now visit the schools in the camps. Here you’ll see decrepit classrooms with grimy walls coated in a patina of poverty where three children cling to each splintered desk. Look in on classes that are bursting at the seams, where teachers struggle to cope with more than 50 pupils at a time. Wait a while and watch, and you’ll see one entire school – teachers, pupils and all – troop out early in the day and be replaced by an entirely new, afternoon school population, as one dilapidated building tries to fit two shifts into one teaching day.Now go to the clinics that serve these crowded camps. Among the wailing babies, the queues of the lame and the crowds of the prematurely aged are doctors who see 115 patients in a single day. Clinics where only a few minutes can be devoted to each case of stunted growth, wheezing lung or dietary malaise. Talk to the doctors about the agonizing choices they have to make, thanks to meager resources, about who will get help with the cost of their life-saving operation and who will not.Try, if you can, to add up the distress you see on this refugee tour and then add another figure to your sum – the 56 years of dispossession and conflict that have battered this exiled population and left them stranded in a stateless limbo.It wasn’t always like this. The United Nations agency that has cared for the Palestine refugees since 1950, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (Unrwa), once spent about $200 a year per refugee. Refugee schools and living standards once at least kept pace with standards in the countries that played host to them. According to some social indicators, such as female literacy and mass immunization, the refugees were a regional success story. Sadly, for the last decade or so, the story has been one of decline. Unrwa’s spending per refugee has fallen to $70 a year.Thanks to a growing population – now over 4 million – and the fact that voluntary donations from the international community have failed to keep up with needs, the gains of the past have been eroded. A spiral of declining services and limited opportunities looms.In order to try to stop the rot, Unrwa and the government of Switzerland have invited more than 70countries to take part in a major conference in Geneva this June to plan new strategies for mproving the lives of the refugees. The theme of the conference will be helping the refugees to help themselves through improved access to jobs, housing, education and health care.Experts from donor countries and international organizations have already started work on concreteplans that will be debated at the conference. The idea of the conference is that by helping Unrwa develop its next steps, the international community will support the increased needs of the refugees.In 56 years there has never been a conference like this, focused on the humanitarian future of thePalestine refugees. Take a walk in one of the 59 camps, or visit one of Unrwa’s 122 clinics, or 660schools, and see for yourself why its success is so important.Peter Hansen is commissioner general of UNRWA.