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Celebrating refuge

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Previously commemorated as African Refugee Day, the 20th of June is now better known to us as World Refugee Day. Protection is this year’s World Refugee Day theme with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) attempting to recreate refugee camp life in about 20 capitals around the world. What the UNHCR’s website calls “the most ambitious and spectacular World Refugee Day celebrations ever”, and only one week dedicated to36organized for refugee camps, I can’t help wondering if each of the more than 40 million refugees worldwide had celebrated too. . . . Safiyya Ellimdin

Are all 40 million and more of these refugees aware of this day held in their honour and is every single one of them part of these “spectacular” celebrations each year? We could delve deeper, but it’s rather unlikely to keep up with more than 40 million individuals scattered around the globe. I would like, therefore, to focus on only one eighth of these special people in whose honour we commemorate just one day and one week of events.

With more than 7 million individuals displaced, the Palestinian refugee population is one of the largest in the world. For Palestinians, the forced expulsion from their homeland in 1948 is a core injury at the heart of the dispute between them and the Israelis. The oldest of the Palestinian refugees have been waiting for 60 years to return home. Many have remained as close as possible to their homes and villages of origin based on the assumption that they will return once the conflict has ceased.

Between 1947 and 1949 more than 750 000 (85%) Palestinians were forcefully driven from their homes. More than 500 Palestinian villages were completely depopulated and later destroyed to prevent the return of refugees. In the districts of Jaffa, Ramla and Bir Saba’ not one Palestinian village was left standing. It is estimated that more than 50% of the 1948 refugees fled under direct military assault. Others were forced to sign papers stating that they were leaving voluntarily.

Phyllis Bennis brings to light an interesting piece of information in her book ‘Inside Israel-Palestine: The Conflict Explained’ where she says, “… Israeli officials and many defenders of Israel claimed that the Palestinians who left did so only because they were ordered to by Arab leaders broadcasting on local radio, who allegedly promised them they would be able to return victorious. But throughout the 1990’s, an increasingly large number of Israeli academics, … , carefully researched and completely debunked that myth. There were no such radio broadcasts.”

After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees in the near East was established to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees. At the same time of UNRWA’s creation, the United Nations passed Resolution 194 which reaffirmed that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return”.

In 1967, 325 000 Palestinians sought refuge in the neighbouring Arab states of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and other Gulf countries. An average of 21 000 Palestinians per year, during the next decade, were forced out of Israeli controlled areas, many being displaced for the second time. Discussion was made at the 2000 Camp David summit about allowing some of the 1967 refugees to return to their homes in a future Palestinian state, but no mention of the right of refugees who chose to return to their homes in what is now Israel was made. These 1967 refugees and their descendants today number about 834 000 persons.

On average there are about 3 million internally displaced refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip together. Living in squalid, crowded camps made of concrete blocks with tin roofs held down by old tyres and iron bars, Palestinians are no longer seeking refuge from just war and persecution, they are desperately struggling in conditions hazardous to both body and mind. For those who are farther away in Lebanon, Syria and other countries can only rely on their memories of what home used to be like; for those who are much younger, it is left to their imaginations to picture anything else other than the suffocated, filthy, open sewage refugee camps.

Yes, it is a painful tale and quite difficult to understand how the Israelis, a people who have suffered bigotry and hate, would create a home for themselves by ethnically cleansing an entire population of an indigenous people is most astonishing. The situation is now at a point where these helpless refugees are no longer able to fend for themselves and yet there are numerous relief agencies globally who claim to be aiding these millions of displaced individuals who are being brutally robbed of their basic human rights. There is only one power that has the ability to rescue these shattered beings and if possible restore any dignity and self-esteem they may have left. This is the power of the Almighty.

Safiyya EllimdinMedia Review NetworkTshwane


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