Palestinian refugees in Syria: Aya must not be left behind

Pierre Krähenbühl

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The international conference on Syria on Wednesday in London is an opportune moment to remember that all wars, in particular this most catastrophic conflagration, are measured by their human cost.

Aya Kassem is a seven year old Palestine refugee from Damascus. A mortar attack mutilated her leg which had to be amputated. Courageously, and after a series of operations, Aya has learned to walk again. Her fortitude and sheer enthusiasm at the prospect of continuing her education are humbling. With determination beyond her years she told us: “It made me happy to go to school to meet friends and learn things that I never knew".

Aya illustrates the very real and individual consequences of the Syrian conflict. Like so many, hers is a destiny that must be nurtured and respected. Nearly 12 million people have been forced to flee their homes; some 6.5 million are internally displaced; meanwhile 4.2 million have fled to neighboring countries. Inside Syria, 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Less attention is given to 560,000 Palestine refugees in Syria that have found themselves caught up in the conflict. They are survivors and children of survivors of the catastrophe or Nakba that befell the Palestinian people, when the 1948 Arab-Israeli war saw 750,000 Palestinians become refugees; they fled or were forced to flee their homes into neighboring countries including Syria. Today the tragedy of their continuing displacement and exile, as part of a group of over five million Palestine refugees across the region, is as yet unresolved.

An estimated 450,000 of the 560,000 Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA in Syria remain inside the country; over 60 percent -- 280,000 people -- are internally displaced. This includes tens of thousands who are trapped in areas of active conflict, such as the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. Though Yarmouk has sometimes made headlines, all 12 Palestine refugee camps in Syria have been impacted by the fighting. We are dealing with yet another generation of Palestinians facing dispossession, displacement, destitution and loss of life.

Forced into exile

Of the Palestine refugees from Syria who have been forced again into exile, around 42,000 have fled to Lebanon and more than 17,000 to Jordan, living a precarious, marginalized existence -- dependent on UNRWA for basic subsistence needs. While their number there has been static for some time, others are taking the more desperate voyage to Europe by boat.

UNRWA has a demonstrated capacity to meet Palestine refugee needs in Syria and beyond, when adequately funded. The Agency has one of the largest presences of personnel in the country; our 4,000 staff have a deep and longstanding experience of the context. We are uniquely placed to help Palestine refugees deal with the multiplicity of traumas and needs they face and we have a demonstrable ability to resume service provisions in Syria’s rare “post conflict” pockets.

Last year, 43,000 students attended our schools in Syria. We implemented a comprehensive “Education in Emergencies” scheme, which included self-learning materials complemented by online interactive learning programs and support classes. 15 UNRWA health centers and 11 health points -- temporary makeshift clinics in conflict affected areas -- conducted several hundred thousand consultations. Against considerable odds, our work daily demonstrates the value of preserving education and health services to ensure that no one is left behind; that there should be no lost generation.

UNRWA combines an ability to respond to immediate emergency needs, while at the same time providing longer term development. We do so under one roof as part of one seamless, sustained intervention.

So in addition to the human development work described above, in 2016, with the support of our donors and partners, we are planning a broad range of emergency programs; food and cash for 430,000 people inside Syria and education and health care for the 60,000 Palestinians who have fled to Lebanon and Jordan.

Life and death

95 per cent of Palestinians in Syria are reliant on URNWA aid. Our support is often the difference between life and death. The significance of this cannot be underestimated, particularly among a population which increasingly seeks protection and services outside the Middle East.

With the conflict soon entering its sixth year, nothing today is more important than progress at the Geneva-talks. Robust political action is needed to resolve the conflict and bring about accountability for violations of international law.

In the meantime, we intend to energetically uphold the rights of Palestine refugees, in Syria and throughout the Middle East. Their plight and the uncertainty they face has gone on for far too long. Their tragedy is one that the world cannot overlook.

In a region where hope and prospects are elusive at best, I return to Aya. Much remains to be done beyond saving her life and helping her to recover from the immediate trauma of losing her leg. Propelled by her ambition to achieve a full education, UNRWA will seek to sustain her through her youth and to adulthood, hoping that opportunities and achievement will lie ahead.

Aya is a Palestine refugee, with her aspirations, pride and dignity. She is a citizen of the world and as such she should not be left behind.
Pierre Krähenbühl is the Commissionner-General at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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