Syria + 5 more

Interview with UNRWA Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi

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UNRWA head Filippo Grandi recently visited war-torn Syria where some 3,700 staff continue to offer basic services to over 500,000 Palestinian refugees. Above, an UNRWA classroom hit by a shell in the Damascus suburb of Yarmouk © UNRWA

The plight of Palestinian refugees spans several decades dating back to the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict and resulting in a 65 year-old diaspora which has seen the Palestinians scattered across the Middle East – from blockaded Gaza to the West Bank to Jordan and Lebanon, where they are provided basic services and humanitarian relief by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA).

But it is the 525,000 Palestinian refugees residing in Syria,who are now in need of priority attention as the escalating violence threatens to entrap them in the midst of a bloody conflict with no end in sight.

With the conflict steadily eroding all semblance of normalcy and destroying the economy, jobs and food in Syria are becoming increasingly scarce. UNRWA’s role in assisting the trapped Palestinians has slowly evolved from providing development-related services such as education and healthcare to bringing emergency provisions to a population under mounting threat.

In an interview with the UN News Centre, UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, Filippo Grandi, talks of the third conflagration to engulf Palestinians since he joined the agency in 2005. He warns that providing access and resources to the half a million Palestinian refugees trapped in Syria and spilling over its borders are among the “most urgent” priorities facing the UN agency but they can only be achieved with the help and appropriate financing from the international community.

UN News Centre: Mr. Filippo Grandi, thank you for speaking to us during your trip to UN Headquarters in New York. First off, why are so many Palestinian refugees affected by the crisis in Syria and what are the main challenges facing them as the conflict escalates?

Filippo Grandi: Everybody in Syria is affected by the conflict. No civilian today is spared from one or the other or several consequences of this horrible conflict, be it straightforward insecurity threatening their lives, be it factors that cause displacement, be it other factors that cause an increase in poverty, or a combination of all these things. The Palestinian refugees, registered with UNRWA in Syria since before the conflict, obviously, have been affected just like everybody else. They have not really been involved politically in the conflict. There are groups, of course, that have been fighting on both sides, but the vast majority of the population has remained very much faithful to its pledge to remain neutral in this terrible conflict. Palestinian President Abbas has appealed to the Palestinians. So has UNRWA. But I must say that these appeals have fallen on ears that wanted to hear that appeal because the Palestinians have learned over the decades that being involved in other people’s conflicts is not in their best interests and is not in the interests of the people hosting them.

UN News Centre: How is UNRWA dealing with the Palestinian refugee crisis in Syria and what are the challenges facing the agency as this crisis continues to escalate?

Filippo Grandi: Our initial objective was to continue to provide our regular services, the services we have provided for decades, before this conflict – education, health, poverty alleviation, and so forth. Unfortunately and increasingly, we have to provide and some times substitute regular services with emergency services – distributing cash because people today are very, very poor in Syria as most of the jobs have been lost to the war; distributing food because food is becoming not so readily accessible, especially for the poor people, it costs a lot of money; stepping up medical aid in situations of conflict. So, you know, our aid unfortunately is turning from the more developmental aid that we do normally to humanitarian assistance. And the challenges are those that affect everybody – insecurity and insufficient resources, but insecurity in particular.

UN News Centre: Can you explain how has UNRWA adapted its work ethic to accommodate this dynamic crisis and what are some of the tools it is implementing in the field?

Filippo Grandi: UNRWA has a comparative advantage, if you will, because in its normal work, we operate through a very large network of local Palestinian refugee staff. So, in Syria, for example, we have more than 3,600 Palestinians working for UNRWA in normal times as teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, and so forth. Now, of course, many of these people have had to somehow add on to their normal responsibilities those of relief workers, emergency relief workers, distributing cash or food, identifying people, reporting cases of disappearances, and so forth. This has taken a heavy toll on UNRWA staff. We lost 5 colleagues, and 10 of our colleagues are reported missing today. So, it is a very heavy burden especially for our local Palestinian staff.

UN News Centre: There is a growing sense that countries in the region are becoming more and more reluctant to host the growing number of refugees caused by the Syrian crisis. What does the refugee crisis mean for these countries already struggling with the refugee influx and how is UNRWA working with them?

Filippo Grandi: I think that the neighbouring countries feel overburdened and rightly so. If you think that a tiny country like Lebanon hosts a refugee population between Syrian and Palestinians that is between 200,000 and 300,000 people, that’s about 10 per cent of its population. It’s like if 25 or 30 million people entered the United States. That’s the proportion. So, of course these countries are struggling under the burden of this hospitality that they have to give to Syrians and Palestinians coming across. But it is important that they continue to keep the doors open because people are fleeing, because of great fear. They don’t flee because they want to flee, but because they’re really terrified or very poor. But it is very important that donors provide support to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, the neighbouring countries, and other countries in the region hosting Syrians and Palestinians, because that’s the way to encourage those countries to keep the doors open until there is a solution to the conflict and these people can go back voluntarily.

UN News Centre: Last week’s kidnapping of 21 UN peacekeepers was perpetrated by a group called the Martyrs of Yarmouk, allegedly referring to a Palestinian refugee camp. What are the risks that Palestinian refugees will become more radicalized if they remained trapped as refugee populations?

Filippo Grandi: First of all, I don’t think the reference to Yarmouk in the title of this group refers to the Palestinian area in Damascus. Yarmouk is the place of a very famous battle in Arab history so it’s more of a patriotic name. It has nothing to do with Palestinians. It’s important to distinguish because I think it’s important not to identify always Palestinians with bad things happening in the Middle East which is unfortunately a reflex which happens too often in the international community. Having said this, I am concerned about Palestinians being trapped. Lebanon is the only country where they really can go. Jordan doesn’t wish a large number of refugees to cross its border. It already hosts a population of over 2 million Palestinian refugees although we have appealed to Jordan to open doors to more Palestinians as well. But for all intents and purposes, the Palestinians have limited flight options and therefore are very much displaced within Syria. I wouldn’t say that this is a factor with them becoming more radical but certainly it exposes them to conflict even more than others.

UN News Centre: You’ve mentioned that UNRWA is assisting the Palestinian refugees with emergency cash distributions. But cash is also in short supply for the agency as well. How is UNRWA addressing its cash shortfall and budget crisis?

Filippo Grandi: Well, everything is a big issue because what is not cash costs cash so everything is affected by the budget. In Syria, we participated in the appeal issued by the United Nations agencies. We work very closely with all the other UN agencies. We put out a joint appeal. UNRWA’s share of this large $1.5 billion appeal put out in January is $90 million for six months. I estimate that between contributions made and pledges and other broader pledges, we are about half way through. So, compared to others we are doing not so badly, but we still need the other half to continue our emergency activities. What is really important though is to remember that this comes at a time when UNRWA already has already been struggling to meet its regular budget needs, not the emergency humanitarian ones. This year we have a shortfall, overall, in the region of $70 million dollars, to run our schools and clinics and normal social activities, so that’s the main preoccupation. When you have a conflict, you get money for the immediate assistance, but then that money goes away soon as the conflict disappears from media screens and the additional needs generated by the conflict remain.

UN News Centre: At the same time, there is the budget sequester in the United States and the continuing impact of global austerity measures on national aid budgets. How are they affecting UNRWA’s work on the ground?

Filippo Grandi: In the last few years, since 2008, following the economic downturn which the world has not come out of fully, aid budgets have been under a lot of pressure worldwide, especially in those countries which still constitute 90 per cent of UNRWA’s donor base, so, the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia, essentially. I have the greatest appreciation for the efforts that these donors have continued to make to support UNRWA’s work. It’s also an appreciation of the importance of this work, for the people that we serve and as a contribution to the stability of the region in which we work. But I do understand that there is a lot of pressure and now this pressure has come around to affect the aid budget of the US. We are concerned about the consequences of sequester, we are concerned about further possible cuts in the aid budgets. We hope that humanitarian components of the budgets, such as those which UNRWA receives, will be spared some of this pressure, but there are reasons for concern. So, what do we do about that? We make ourselves vigilant in how we spend the money but also we are trying to make every possible effort to expand the donor base. I have travelled a lot to countries like Brazil and Turkey and other countries that are emerging on the international economic scene and which we hope will emerge on the international aid scene to share the burden of supporting populations in distress. These are not just the prerogative of a few western donor countries. They should be global concern and the countries that can afford it should step up to the plate as some, like Brazil and Turkey, have already done, and participate in this effort.

UN News Centre: Despite the immediate concern over the situation in Syria, Palestinian refugees are spread throughout the region and continue to face numerous hardships. Do you feel that the Syria crisis has diverted international attention away from the ongoing Gaza blockade?

Filippo Grandi: Of course it has. In the system of international perceptions, if you want to call it like this, one crisis always chases away another. The world’s attention span is short and limited. So if there is a very acute crisis, like in Syria, that legitimately that attracts a lot of attention, I think it’s important not to forget all the other crises. And I also think it is important not to forget that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still needs a resolution and among the elements of that conflict that do need a resolution is the question of refugees. UNRWA cannot disappear until that question is addressed and addressing that question can only happen in the political domain through the development of a just solution for these nearly 5 million Palestinian refugees. Therefore, yes, I think there is distraction and we are worried about that but there are other elements of that conflict, such as the blockade in Gaza that equally suffer from diminished attention because of so many resources, even political resources being focussed on Syria today.

UN News Centre: Nevertheless, the Palestinian refugee populations in Syria are under constant threat from the civil war there. What are UNRWA’s current priorities in assisting the Palestinian refugees in Syria?

Filippo Grandi: I think access is the perhaps the most urgent priority. This is a messy war; not just a very violent and tragic war for the civilian population. It is also a war conducted in a way that creates a very fluid situation on the ground so concepts like frontlines or zones of control are sometimes quite broad or fluid and to operate in these situations is always the most dangerous situation. So, having the possibility to access people is the priority. The other one is resources, especially the pledges made in Kuwait by Gulf countries during the donor’s conference there on 30 January. I have met their respective permanent representatives here in New York. This is very urgent and important for all of us on the ground but more than anything else, it’s for the international community and the Security Council in particular to find agreement on how to put an end to this violence. That’s the biggest priority. Otherwise, the suffering will skyrocket and with it the enormous needs of these populations in distress.