Palestinian refugees: Supporting UNRWA

The situation in Gaza in the last six weeks has been appalling. The impact of the violence on civilians has been horrific

Peter Millett

Published: Updated:

The situation in Gaza in the last six weeks has been appalling. The impact of the violence on civilians, especially women and children, has been horrific. Almost half a million Palestinians have had to leave their homes. Finding shelter, food and medicine has been a daily challenge.

As I write, a ceasefire is now in operation. Let’s hope it lasts and that the serious task of rebuilding Gaza and difficult task of repairing the damage to the lives of innocent civilians can start.

Throughout the crisis, the role of UNRWA, the United Nations Agencies and international humanitarian organizations has been crucial. UNRWA has provided emergency humanitarian assistance to refugees in Gaza, sheltering over 280,000 civilians in 85 schools.

Let’s hope that the serious task of rebuilding Gaza and difficult task of repairing the damage to the lives of innocent civilians can start

Peter Millett

Some of those schools were shelled causing the death of some of the people who had sought shelter there. Despite these setbacks and the fact that 11 of their staff were killed, UNRWA’s commissioner general, Pierre Krähenbuhl, was clear about their continuing commitment in Gaza. UNRWA continued to provide shelter and supply food and water to families whose homes were destroyed or who sought shelter from the U.N.

Rebuilding those schools and hospitals and repairing the water supply are now top priorities. And, for the future, UNRWA will have to rebuild shattered lives. A priority will be to look at the impact of the violence on children and the risk that there will be a new generation left traumatized.

UNRWA experience

UNRWA has experience of tackling these issues. It has been helping Palestinian refugees for over 60 years. When it started in 1949, the United Nations was responding to the needs of 750,000 refugees from Palestine; it now has some five million refugees who are eligible for its services. UNRWA provides education, health care and protection in 58 camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza.

I have visited UNRWA camps in and around Amman, Jerash and Irbid. Many have merged into the fabric of the cities. Meeting refugees face to face is a humbling experience. They tell their stories of fleeing their homes, escaping the brutality of war and armed conflict, seeking shelter and, importantly, wanting to go home. As donors, we have to help both the refugees and the countries and agencies that are generously helping them.

Despite the poverty and cramped conditions in the camps, there is always an atmosphere of hope, especially in the schools where young people have ambitions and dream of a better future. They don’t want to be a burden; they want to contribute to the economic development of Jordan. Small projects can make a difference. I have seen the way UNRWA provides money for women to set up small businesses; or helps to renovate buildings so that families can have decent housing.

The international community has to help UNRWA, not only in its immediate tasks in Gaza, but also in the longer-term efforts for refugees in other countries. The European Union is a major donor providing 43.7% of UNRWA’s budget.

The UK is one of the largest donors to UNRWA, contributing £107 million ($177 million) over the current four-year period as well as providing support to other agencies who work with UNRWA such as the World Food Programme (WFP) and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

For the crisis in Gaza, the UK has donated more than £19 million ($32 million) in emergency assistance to help tens of thousands of people who have lost their homes.

Returning to Gaza, UNRWA has been able to provide temporary relief to the refugees. If the ceasefire holds, the priority has to be a permanent and lasting end to the violence so that UNRWA can address the dire humanitarian situation there. In the longer term, there has to be a comprehensive negotiated solution that will allow both Israelis and Palestinian families to live without fear of further violence.


Peter Millett is the British Ambassador to Jordan. Previously he was British High Commissioner to Cyprus from June 2005 to April 2010. He has served in a number of positions in the British Diplomatic Service since joining in 1974. He was Director of Security in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 2002-2005, dealing with all aspects of security for British diplomatic missions overseas. From 1997-2001 he served as Deputy Head of Mission in Athens. From 1993-96 Mr Millett was Head of Personnel Policy in the FCO. From 1989-93 he held the post of First Secretary (Energy) in the UK Representative Office to the European Union in Brussels, representing the UK on all energy and nuclear issues. From 1981-1985 he served as Second Secretary (Political) in Doha.

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