Philippe Lazzarini speaking to Vatican News/Vatican Radio after his meeting with Pope Francis Philippe Lazzarini speaking to Vatican News/Vatican Radio after his meeting with Pope Francis 

UNRWA Commissioner: Palestinian refugees deserve the chance to dream

After a private audience with Pope Francis, Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA's Commissioner-General for Palestine refugees in the Near East, speaks to Vatican News about the harsh realities facing Palestinian refugees in the region and their struggle to hope for a better life.

By Francesca Merlo

Philippe Lazzarini has had an opportunity to convey in-person the voice of Palestinian refugees to Pope Francis, who has dedicated so much of his pontificate to the plight of migrants and refugees worldwide.

As Commissioner-General of UNRWA, or "United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East", he shared with the Holy Father the situation and difficulties facing Palestinian refugees in the Middle East. 

In his private audience on Thursday, Mr. Lazzarini said the international community has turned its back on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, adding that this is “fuelling a lot of despair and distress” amongst all Palestinian, but in a particular way, amongst Palestinian refugees.

Philippe Lazzarini with Pope Francis
Philippe Lazzarini with Pope Francis

From solidarity to indifference

Speaking to Vatican News shortly after his meeting with Pope Francis, Mr. Lazzarini explained that he does believe there has been genuine solidarity towards the situation in Palestine, but that indifference is rapidly growing.

“This situation is being deprioritised,” he said. “We see it also by the fact that the peace process has been completely stalled now for more than a decade, thus opening up spaces for countries to reprioritise the areas on which they want to focus.”

Foreign countries, he added, have clearly chosen not to focus on the Israel-Palestine conflict and instead on other geopolitical issues.

He said it is difficult to understand why, in absence of a political process, foreign governments involved in the region are decreasing their funding for Palestinian refugees. “Any decrease of contribution has a direct impact on our ability to deliver on our mandate,” said Mr. Lazzarini.

UNRWA mandate

Amongst other things, UNRWA provides "education to nearly 600,000 girls and boys in the region. We provide primary health to more than two million people in the region. We provide a social protection safety net to more than half a million people. We provide emergency assistance whenever a crisis occurs.”

He noted that UNRWA is asked to act like a government public service to one of the most destitute groups in the region, “except that we do not have the finances of a government.”

Mr. Lazzarini stressed that this is one of the main reasons he attended the UN General Assembly in November: to stress to member states that out mandate needs to be extended but that they need to commit to it.

“You cannot say one thing and act completely differently,” he stressed, because “that means putting the agency and the Palestinian refugees in an impossible, impossible, situation.”

Appeal to governments

Appealing to governments and member states, Mr. Lazzarini stressed that as the longest lasting unresolved conflict, his organization cannow recognise familiar cycles.

“This cycle is one that continues to return,” he stressed, adding that as the world enters the 75th year of conflict, and "as we live the fifth conflict since 2008, we can only stress how if it remains unsolved it will come back."

Mr. Lazzarini noted that “we cannot show signs of fatigue, nor can we show indifference. It is time to act differently.”

Education should not have to be justified

“It’s sometimes a little bit mind-boggling that we have to justify why to invest in education," he said. "Education is all that many of these people have left.”

Over the last few decades, UNRWA has helped over two million Palestinian refugees graduate from secondary school, “and if you look retrospectively, most of them have contributed to the prosperity of the broader Arab region.”

“Without a proper education in our schools, without a proper alternative in the absence of a political solution, where would these kids go?" he wondered, offering the example of the Gaza Strip. "We have nearly 300,000 girls and boys in our school. If we cannot run our school, where will they go? There is no other capacity to absorb them.”

Hope to dream

UNRWA’s Commissioner-General did not stop at highlighting the harsh realities, or at stressing the dire need for assistance and partnership.

He described his trips to camps, in various parts of the world, where people have almost nothing, as revigorating.

“Wherever you go, people want to share with you their dreams for the future,” he noted, using a camp he recently visited in Aleppo as an example, where years of conflict and a recent earthquake have left them with less than the little they already had.

“The discussion with the youth was: 'can you help us to provide the same tools as the other students in the region, because we have no other dream than to be independent, to be self-reliant, to have a business, to have a family, to have children and to educate them’.”

The dreams of young Palestinian refugees are very simple, concluded Mr. Lazzarini, adding that “if we do not want to fail them, that is the very least that we owe them. The very least.”

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11 May 2023, 15:37