6. ConclusionUNRWA was established to provide assistance to Palestine refugees. Over the years the Agency has collected and processed data to serve its needs in daily work and planning, and to document the Agency's work for its financial contributors. Its mandate has never been to give priority to provision of data for social science research. Nevertheless UNRWA's data contain a host of information about the situation of Palestine refugees in UNRWA's five Fields of operations. The data represent a potential for research on Palestine refugees. Their major advantage is the comprehensive scope with regard to time, geography, and topics.
UNRWA data consist of the family files, the service statistics covering health and education, and the registration records. The data have been produced since the inception of UNRWA, they have been produced by a uniform system of data collection, and they cover all the Agency's five Fields of operations.
At present most of the UNRWA data are only available to the general public and researchers in the form of printed statistics, at the Field level of aggregation. It is not clear to what extent the various UNRWA installations at the service delivery level, such as Health Centres and schools, store the primary data which they collect.
The research value of the data can, however, still be improved. This study has given several concrete suggestions for how to facilitate and encourage their use. A major disadvantage of the UNRWA data is that the data are not integrated into one single data base. Linking registration records, health data, and education data together would multiply their potential for answering research questions and thus increase their relevance significantly.
The Unified Registration System (URS) and the Social Study Report which is currently introduced to record information about UNRWA's "Special Hardship Case" families are particularly promising for use in social science research. The URS may be used to join economic, educational and health information for individuals and families in one integrated, computerized data base. The Social Study Report represents a prototype for how to organize data also about the remaining (95%) UNRWA registered Palestine refugees. This would tremendously improve the research value of UNRWA data.
With regard to statistics in education and health, UNRWA mainly records information about the use of its own services. We do not know if users of UNRWA services are representative of all registered refugees. This limits the ability to generalize findings to the registered refugee population as a whole.
Some statistics are based on self-reported information even though incentives
for systematic erroneous reporting exists, thus presenting a problem of
low reliability. In these cases systematic check-up procedures for limiting
errors could be carried out. Continuous updating of information is likewise
needed to ensure that data have current interest.
A reduction of costs to access UNRWA data would greatly benefit researchers. Such efforts are particularly important for Palestinian research institutions with small budgets. Access costs could for example be reduced by introducing standardized application procedures for research permits. Centralization and computerization of data will further reduce costs and substantially facilitate access for those who obtain research permits.
The refugees' right to privacy must however be respected. Most research projects using individuals and families as investigation units do not require names and addresses of persons. Sensitive information about individuals and families can be misused, and trust that confidentiality is upheld by the Agency's staff is of outmost importance. Where there is a risk that sensitive information about individuals and families may be misused, appropriate measures to guarantee anonymity can be put in place.
One obstacle to enhance the research value of UNRWA's data is the Agency's need to balance between the interests of the various parties in its environment. Yet it is also certain that the Middle East Peace Process will have a great impact on both the perceptions and interests of all parties involved. The safeguards and concerns that have played such a central role in the past may thus become less important in the future.