Over 450,000 Palestine refugee children are enrolled in UNRWA schools for the 2015/16 school year. UNRWA Photo by Taghrid Mohammad

No group illustrates the potential impact of long term refugee status like Palestinians

No group illustrates the potential impact of long term refugee status like Palestinian refugees. While the global average for time spent as a refugee is 17 years, Palestinian refugees have held that status for 66 years. Unlike other refugee groups that fall under the mandate of UNHCR with the 1951 Refugee Convention, the UN created the Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), in 1949 with the specific mandate to manage both the Jewish and Palestinian refugee flows that resulted from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Expected to be a short term project, the lack of a durable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means that UNRWA’s mandate has been renewed 21 times since its creation – once every three years since 1951.

The long-standing nature of a temporary agency has led to some unique challenges. As a result, in addition to short term humanitarian relief with food and cash assistance, UNRWA also operates development programs such as health clinics and schools. All of these programs are impacted by conflict, but as UNRWA’s Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl pointed out in a recent press briefing, conflicts in the region increasingly threaten the ability for these programs to operate which has long term implications for the Palestinian community.

Education Matters Most

In particular, education has come to mean a great deal to these communities. UNRWA operates 700 schools for an estimated 5,000 Palestinians, not just in the West bank and Gaza, but also Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. But as traditionally safe civilian institutions such as hospitals continue to come under fire in the region, so do schools.

“If you think of schools, it is not the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of a war zone and installations being caught up [in conflict],” said Krähenbühl. “You may think of clinics, you may think of hospitals, you may think of other civilians installations. Schools are often forgotten in this equation.”

A recent report by UNRWA illustrates how schools are just as vulnerable, not just in Syria but also conflict-prone places like Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. In the past five years, UNRWA found that 44 per cent of its schools had been impacted by conflict, either through physical damage or through significant interruptions in educational services. In Syria, more than 70 per cent of UNRWA schools are now inoperable because of the conflict, adding even more hardship to a community that is often considered one of the most vulnerable in the region.

“The importance of the education work is that it is the core element that keeps hope alive in Palestinian refugee communities,” noted  Krähenbühl. “Wherever I go, I meet young Palestinians boys and girls who ask me to ensure that their access to education remains protected, preserved from any form of crisis.”

That is increasingly a big ask, and not just for the Palestinian community. The UN estimates that 462 million children – 1 in 4 in the world – live in countries impacted by crisis, whether that be conflict, natural disasters or health emergencies such as the West African Ebola outbreak. Many students who start school never finish because of the impact of these crises, not only damaging short term opportunities for these students but creating a long term gap in development potential for their countries.

At last month’s World Humanitarian Summit, UNICEF announced the creation of the “Education Cannot Wait” fund to help more than 30 million displaced children continue their education despite the crises that may come to their doorstep such as the closing of an estimated 5,000 schools by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and the aftermath of the devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

The fund marks a significant step forward in protecting access to education for those who have already been displaced, but the protection of existing schools is something that UNRWA wants to also bring attention to. Only when education is considered to be a fundamental part of humanitarian assistance will we ensure that the potential of children to thrive regardless of the environment around them.

“When you think of conflict zones, mainly you think about the humanitarian emergency: giving foods, giving medicines. That is when you look at people as victims,” said Krähenbühl. “But when you invest in education, you are investing in the future of young people, you are investing in the future of the community, and you are investing in the future of countries in the region — their dignity and stability.”