Millions of Palestinian refugees are said to be facing their most difficult challenges since the beginning of the Palestinian struggle in 1948. Esther Kuisch-Laroche, chief of the donor relations division of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) spoke to The Jakarta Post's Bagus BT Saragih over the weekend about the refugees' current situation and the aid they urgently need today. Here are excerpts from the interview, conducted after Laroche's keynote speech during the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People celebrations at the Muhammadiyah Center in Jakarta:
Question: Could you briefly describe the Palestinian refugees' current situation?
Answer: The situation in Palestine is deteriorating. Gaza is suffering from the Israeli-imposed blockade and in the West Bank, settlement expansion continues. Of course, the conflict in Syria is a big concern. Palestinian refugees registered there are internally displaced and many have fled to neighboring countries. The majority fled to Lebanon, others to Egypt, Jordan and Gaza. Some even tried to flee to Europe and many have drowned trying to reach the continent.
How can they meet their basic needs?
The economy in Gaza is dying. UN data shows that the number of refugees relying on external aid increased from 10 percent in 2000 to 70 percent in 2013. Five out of six people aged between 16 and 28 are unemployed. The UNRWA provides food to 800,000 people, about half of the population.
Regarding that situation, what do you think the world, particularly Indonesia, can do to help address refugees' needs?
The UNRWA is the only UN agency that is mandated to specifically support Palestinian refugees. We want to call upon the government of Indonesia to increase its support of UNRWA. We have always had political support from Indonesia and hopefully the financial support would be increased too. In 2012, Indonesia increased its contribution to the UNRWA from US$20,000 to $100,000 which we were very grateful for. On this day of solidarity, I would like to ask for your generosity to increase the support and I am hoping to see a deeper and more enhanced relationship between the UNRWA and Indonesia. I would like to appeal for more funding and not just from the government. We hope links with civil society and business communities will create more support for the roughly 5 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, as well as those in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
It seems the UNRWA is in urgently need for financial support, why is this?
This is basically to cover the salaries of our staff. Right now, we urgently need $36 million to cover the December salaries. That is our current urgent finance shortfall. We have many teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, etc. We, of course, have to pay their salaries every month. This financial issue is crucial because we cannot carry out our work without the funds. No one else supports the Palestinian refugees beside UNRWA. We provide primary healthcare, basic education to all children, micro credit, social services, emergency aid, etc. We provide a lot of services to ensure the basic rights of refugees are fulfilled.
What about the political and diplomacy efforts by Indonesia, do you think we can do more?
We are not a political organization. We are just mandated to provide support relief and social work to Palestinian refugees. So, it is hard for me to say who is doing enough or not, but I think we always had strong political support from Indonesia and other countries in Asia.
What about the role of the UN itself?
I can only speak for UNRWA.
Do you have any particular expectations on International Solidarity Day?
I am hoping that Indonesia will show its support for and solidarity with Palestinian refugees, not just words, but also through funding and concrete action. I hope that very soon we will no longer have to celebrate this day. I hope that a just and endurable solution for the Palestinian refugees can be created.