Seventy countries and international aid agencies started a two-day meeting in Geneva on Monday at the largest conference aimed at drumming up support for an estimated 4.1 million Palestinian refugees scattered across the Middle East.

In the last two decades donations to Palestinian refugees have been slipping massively from $200 per refugee per year to only $70, said United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA) spokesperson Paul McCaan.

"There are so many other competing demands…when you have an emergency in Iraq, emergencies in southern Africa, the whole of Africa food emergencies. And so the emergency funds for (Palestinian refugees) have to compete in a world of increasing instability and crises elsewhere," McCaan told Aljazeera.net. UNRWA's funds are based on volunteer assistance.

Since the start of the Intifada in September 2000, donors have also poured most of their assistance to the West Bank and Gaza due to what McCaan described as the day to day emergencies.

"It may be that there are some donors…[who] feel they are providing Israel with a luxury occupation and [that] it's Israel responsibility to pick up the tab seeing that they are the occupying power"

Paul McCaan,
UNRWA spokesperson

UNRWA is concerned that the international community has increasingly overlooked the appalling living conditions of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria who are heavily dependent on the aid organisation.

"We've convened this in order to raise our eye level from the emergency and to look at a more development-orientated strategy," said McCaan.

The conference, taking place as Israeli invasions continue unabated, has been well-attended because "people are looking for an area where some progress can be made", he added.

Infrastructure urgent

The conference does not expect to raise donations but rather drum up support for long-term plans over the next three to five years, including infrastructure projects, said McCaan.

Donor countries' delegations will attend workshops on children, infrastructure and economic development schemes for refugees.

By involving donors in recommendations, UNRWA hopes they will also pick up the tab for these projects and "fund the kind of re-invigorated UNRWA we need," said McCaan.

The most urgent areas include aid for building schools and clinics.

An elementary school destroyed
in the occupied territories

Almost 99% of their schools are run on double-shifts, meaning children receive only four hours of education daily, said the aid organisation spokesperson. Classrooms are crammed with 50 to 60 students and desks are splintered and falling apart.

"In the '60s UNRWA had made real progress with education and the refugees," said McCaan. "Now they're slipping back and you can't expect the host government to want living in their midst this kind of 'sink' population, a ghettoised population whose living conditions are getting worse."

Bottomless pit?

UNRWA received only 50% of its ordinary funding last year, said McCaan.

US Assistant Secretary of State Arthur Dewey, speaking at the conference, urged Gulf and European countries to offer more help, focusing particularly on the wealthy Gulf states.

However, McCaan said the aid agency would like to see more help from all donor countries. He pointed out that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) funded the $27 million reconstruction of the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, the largest single grant UNRWA has ever had.

UNRWA says it need $11 million
alone for reconstruction in Rafah

In April 2002, Israeli occupation soldiers launched a massive onslaught on Jenin for almost two weeks, levelling most of the camp and killing 45 people.

"The donations aren't really slipping. What has happened is the populations grown and the donations haven't kept pace with the population growth," said McCaan. 

Donor countries may also be concerned that they are providing money into "a bottomless pit," with no sign of the Intifada abating or a resolution to the conflict, said McCaan.

"It may be that there are some donors…feel they are providing Israel with a luxury occupation and [that] it's Israel responsibility to pick up the tab seeing that they are the occupying power," he added.

Israel's invasions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have forced UNRWA to launch seven emergency appeals since the start of the Intifada, said McCaan. The aid organisation is asking for $193 million for 2004 for the occupied territories and a supplementary bill just for Rafah, he added.

In late May Israeli troops launched a 72 hour invasion in the Gaza Strip refugee camp, leaving 55 people dead and destroying most of the infrastructure. UNRWA launched an appeal last week for $16 million just for reconstruction and emergency cash for Rafah.

UNRWA was established in 1948 to help Palestinian refugees forced to flee their homes when Israel was created.