The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is to open a liaison office in Geneva.
UNRWA has been seeking a permanent representation in Europe for some time, and Geneva was selected as it is already the base for a number of non-governmental agencies (NGOs).
René Aquarone, who will head the new office when it opens on Tuesday, hopes the liaison office will enable the agency to work in closer cooperation with other NGOs: "It's because of the importance of Geneva as a humanitarian capital that UNRWA has decided to open an office in Geneva."
"The new office will be very helpful in increasing cooperation with other UN agencies and NGOs, and also gives us a strong presence in Europe, as we search for European donors," Aquarone told swissinfo.
UNRWA is the leading multilateral organisation providing assistance to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Switzerland has pledged SFr8.3 million to support UNRWA during 2001, making it one of the agency's ten most important donor countries. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) works in partnership with UNRWA to allocate the funds.
Peter Hansen, commissioner-general of UNRWA, visited Bern on Monday for talks with representatives from the SDC and with the Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss.
Escalating violence in the Middle East over recent months has made UNRWA's work increasingly difficult, and Hansen encouraged the Swiss government to use its good offices to help bring about a resolution to the regional conflict.
Hansen also explained that the challenge for the agency's new office will be to change the European perception that UNRWA's work only involves keeping refugees in a permanent state of dependency.
"We extend loans to people so they can start up their own small businesses," said Hansen, "a scheme which is contrary to the stereotype of UNRWA just doling out food to the refugees."
Swiss contributions finance special projects such as a hospitalisation fund, providing medical care for refugees with serious illnesses, as well as the setting up of the Geneva office.
swissinfo with agencies