Middle East Peace Process

Introduction to the Refugee Working Group

The continuing plight of the Palestinian refugees displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict is among the most important issues to be addressed by the Middle East Peace Process. At present there are 3.7 million refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). All the parties to the Middle East Peace Process acknowledge that finding a just solution to the problem of the refugees is fundamental to achieving a comprehensive and durable peace in the Middle East.

The Multilateral Process

The "Madrid" process, launched in 1991, was based in part on United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 and its principle of direct negotiations between the parties concerned. The Madrid meeting in 1991 was supplemented by a further conference held in Moscow in 1992 to launch the multilateral process. At that time, the five multilateral Working Groups were set up to address regional issues or ones where the involvement of the international community was required.

 Photo - Group of women with children 

The establishment in Moscow of the Refugee Working Group is a measure of the importance attached to the refugee issue. The other four Working Groups are Water Resources, Environment, Arms Control and Regional Security, and Regional Economic Development.

What is the role of the Refugee Working Group?

The Refugee Working Group (RWG) complements the bilateral negotiating parties' own efforts to address the refugee issue by:

  • improving the current living conditions of refugees and displaced persons without prejudice to their rights and future status;
  • easing and extending access to family reunifications; and
  • supporting the process of achieving a viable and comprehensive solution to the refugee issue.

Who Is Involved?

In Moscow, Canada was invited to chair the RWG. The current chairperson, or "Gavel" is Jill Sinclair, Special Co-ordinator, Middle East Peace Process, of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada.

The other RWG participants are:

  • the "core" parties: the Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians and Egyptians (to date, the Syrians and Lebanese have chosen not to participate in the multilateral track of the MEPP);

  • the "co-sponsors" of the MEPP: the United States and Russia;

  • the "co-organizers" of the multilateral track: the European Union and Japan;

  • a large number of other "regional parties": Arab states from Mauritania to the Gulf; and

  • "extra-regional parties" from Asia, the Pacific and Europe who are committed to the multilateral track of the MEPP and recognize the importance of the refugee issue.

How Does the RWG Relate to the Bilateral Negotiations?

The Oslo Accords of 1993 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization established the issue of refugees as one of the "permanent status" issues, along with other sensitive issues such as boundaries, water and Jerusalem. At that time, the two sides also agreed to set up a quadripartite committee (including Egypt and Jordan) to address the modalities of the return of persons displaced by the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.

Parade of trucks loaded with funiture 

The issue of refugees and displaced persons is also included for bilateral negotiations within the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty. That treaty points to the RWG as one of the fora in which the human dimension of the refugee problem should be addressed.

It is generally recognized that the bilateral negotiations are not sufficient to address all aspects of a solution to the refugee issue - such a solution must be multifaceted. The RWG therefore serves to support and complement the process of arriving at a just, comprehensive and durable settlement to the refugee question, without prejudicing the refugees' rights and future status.

All the parties in the Working Group have agreed that it is important that the refugees see tangible benefits the peace process. At the same time, the RWG has served as a forum for discussion of longer-term issues and of how the international community, including the regional parties, can contribute to the evolution of an agreed and lasting solution.

How Does the RWG Work?

The RWG meets in plenary session, which consist of all 45 delegations, in coordination meetings of the parties most directly involved in the refugee issue, and in a range of "intersessional" meetings. The plenary and coordination meetings review the RWG's ongoing work and set priorities for the future. The intersessional meetings bring together Arab and Israeli representatives, their extra-regional counterparts and international experts for more detailed consideration of specific aspects of the refugee issue.

At its first substantive meeting in Ottawa in May 1992, the RWG decided to organize its work on a thematic basis. Subsequently, lead countries, or "shepherds," were identified for each theme. The themes and shepherds are: child welfare (Sweden); databases (Norway); economic and social infrastructure (the European Union); family reunification (France); human resources development, job creation and vocational training (the United States); and public health (Italy). In co-operation with the regional parties, the shepherds are responsible for defining needs, developing responses and mobilizing required resources.

Improving Living Conditions for Refugees

The RWG has supported a wide range of specific projects that prove that the peace process is benefiting people on the ground. For example, the RWG has:

  • helped UNRWA raise funds for its Peace Implementation Program (PIP). More than US$90 million was raised for PIP projects in the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon;

  • supported training in public health, construction, small enterprises, agriculture and public administration;

  • launched a process to improve funding and functioning of access to hospitalization by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon;

  • provided needed medical supplies and equipment to UNRWA and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and supported their clinics;

  • defined and partially funded a program to address urgent needs of Palestinian children in the West Bank and Gaza, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon; and

RWG parties have also provided financial support to a large number of individual projects, including:

  • construction of two schools in the Marka Camp in Jordan;

  • rehabilitation of housing and schools in Gaza;

  • construction of two health centres in Ein Arik and Beit Our in the West Bank;

  • reconstruction of 11 youth centres in the West Bank and Gaza;

  • construction and equipment of a health centre in Homs Camp in Syria;

  • renovation of the Haifa and Al Hamshary hospitals in Lebanon;

  • a training program for nurses and midwives from Gaza in maternal and child health;

  • medical aid expansion in Gaza;

  • rehabilitation of the Governative Hospital in Khan Younis, Gaza;

  • a wastewater treatment plant for the Beach Camp and provision of potable water for Khan Younis and the refugee camps, Gaza;

  • construction of the Mansour school in Tyre, Lebanon;

  • provision of social and health services for special hardship cases in Jordan;

  • establishment of databases on the living conditions among Palestinian refugees and displaced in Jordan;

  • Save the Children's Microfinance Program in Lebanon for Palestinian refugee women;

  • construction and equipping of co-educational elementary and preparatory school at Sukhneh, Jordan;

  • construction of the Tel el-Sultan Community Centre in Gaza;

  • shelter rehabilitation in refugee camps in Lebanon;

  • funding for a bakery and a greenhouse in Al-Rashidieh Camp near Tyre, Lebanon;

  • renovation, equipment, upgrading and restocking of the library at Siblin Training Centre, Lebanon;

  • additional funding for the completion of the Baqa'a Community Rehabilitation Centre;

  • ongoing contributions of medical supplies to the Palestinian areas; and

  • the opening and administration of a day-care clinic in the West Bank.

  • Easing and Extending Access to Family Reunification

A common humanitarian objective of the RWG is the reunification of family members who have been separated as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The work of the Group has resulted in an increase in the quota of individuals to be admitted to the West Bank and Gaza to be reunited with their families. Under RWG auspices, France has actively worked with the regional parties to gather information on existing practices, to identify areas where improvement is needed and to facilitate negotiations to bridge differences.

In addition, with support from Canada and Kuwait, the process of relocation of nearly 500 families from "Canada Camp" in the Egyptian Sinai to Gaza has been completed.

Supporting the Process of Achieving a Viable and Comprehensive Solution to the Refugee Issue

 Photo of a young family

For the Middle East refugee problem to be addressed, there has to be a common understanding of its scope and an appreciation of the effectiveness of ongoing measures to address it. The RWG has sponsored a number of basic data collection and analysis initiatives intended to define the scope of the refugee problem, establish priorities for action and assess the impact of alternative political choices. Some examples include:

  • An update of the living conditions survey of the West Bank and Gaza and the Jordan Living Conditions Survey, which includes a component on refugees; and

  • A comprehensive needs assessment to identify refugees' priority requirements for assistance in the areas of public health, child welfare and economic and social infrastructure.

A Forum for Dialogue

The RWG provides a forum for dialogue among the regional parties on refugee issues. Such opportunities permit them to clarify their respective positions, build confidence, develop and test options and engender the kind of mutual trust needed to make difficult decisions. These discussions take place not just at plenary sessions but in a variety of intersessional meetings, including:

  • periodic coordination meetings of the principal concerned parties. There have been five such meetings since 1996, most recently in January, 1999;

  • a vocational training intersessional in Washington in June, 1998;

  • meetings to address priority public health and child welfare issues confronting Palestinian refugees and their families;

  • periodic reviews of data needs, and action on these reviews; and

  • intersessional meetings to address family reunification practices and issues, most recently in Paris, March 1999.

  • The RWG also promotes dialogue with the refugees themselves by conducting international missions to refugee camps to help identify future directions for RWG activities and to ensure feedback on its activities. These missions demonstrate to the Palestinian refugees that their condition remains of concern to the international community.

The RWG has conducted missions to Jordan in 1994, in 1996 and in 1999, in the West Bank and Gaza in 1998. Similar international missions were conducted in Lebanon in 1994 and 1997. The various missions effectively highlighted both the complexity of the Palestinian refugee problem, and the necessity of resolving it.

What Are the RWG's Plans for the Future?

Since the beginning, the RWG has been committed to ensuring a better future for all those displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict. Finding and implementing a comprehensive and durable solution for the Palestinian refugees will require the assistance and support of the international community. The RWG is working to advance understanding on the issues involved in an eventual solution. At the same time it will continue to work to raise awareness of the needs of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and the West Bank and Gaza and to mobilize resources to improve their living conditions.

Photographs courtesy of UNRWA and Ambassador Robert Fowler, formerly Canada’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, New York.