For a dispossessed population

Interview with Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Published : Sep 18, 2013 12:30 IST

Palestinian children play near a section of the wall Israel has built, in the Shuafat refugee camp in the West Bank on July 29.

Palestinian children play near a section of the wall Israel has built, in the Shuafat refugee camp in the West Bank on July 29.

THE Palestine-Israel conflict in the last 65 years has created a significant population of Palestinian refugees. Not only have they been displaced and dispossessed; they often struggle to find a refuge. Mostly living under miserable conditions, the Palestinian refugees have increased in number because of the escalating conflict. The Syrian conflict and the high-handedness of Western forces have resulted in a new phenomenon—displacement of the already displaced refugees. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), a body formed in 1949 exclusively to assist Palestinian refugees, more than half of the 530,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria have already fled from their camps.

Filippo Grandi, the UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, who was recently in New Delhi, spoke to Frontline about the plight of the refugees in the context of the Syrian conflict and the problems the UNRWA is facing in the region in the changed geo-political scenario.

What brought you to India?

I came here to meet the Foreign Minister to discuss India’s support to the UNRWA. The Minister of State had to leave for Saudi Arabia, so I met senior officials. India has been our supporter for many years and has increased its financial support, particularly in the last four years. I was very impressed with India’s willingness to help. This time I go back with a sum of $1 million for our agency.

How has India's response to the Palestinian refugee question been?

We do need political support in the United Nations General Assembly. One of the issues we discussed is gathering support to restart the peace process in Palestine. India believes that the UNRWA should be strengthened. India has a good understanding of our work. Many officials have lived in Gaza and the West Bank. They know a lot. It was like talking to experts.

Could you talk a bit about the plight of Palestinian refugees?

The Palestinian refugees are a population dispossessed. They lost their lands. They had to flee during the conflict and had to go to neighbouring countries seeking refuge. They want a just solution to their plight. They want to return to their own lands. They are a result of a very long conflict—65 years. Yet there is no solution. We must give them a solution. Palestinian refugees are assisted by the UNRWA. Our mandate is exclusively to assist Palestinians. We are not a political organisation. This is sometimes criticised but there is a historical reason for it. The UNRWA was created before the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). And it has developed a mode of assistance different from that of the UNHCR. We essentially give public services to the refugees.

How does UNRWA navigate the hugely politicised space in the Palestinian refugee camps?

Navigation is rough. It is a choppy sea. We are aware of the politics of Palestinians. We have to take it into account. What is important for us though is that we remain apolitical. We don’t have the mandate to provide a political solution. UNHCR has this mandate in some situations, but we don’t. Our mandate is to provide public assistance until Israel and Palestine have an agreement on refugees. This is also an understanding on the part of refugees. They also understand that we don’t have the mandate. Our critics say that we perpetuate the problem; but I don’t agree with that. What perpetuates the problem is the lack of peace, the lack of political solution. Imagine, if we had not been there, the conditions of the five million refugees we take care of would have been much worse. Their children could not have gone to school. The poorest would not have been able receive any medical services. Palestinian refugees are very educated in comparatison [with other refugees] and that has happened because of the UNRWA. I think our role is political in the sense that if we were not there, this population would have been restless and would have added to the already volatile situation in West Asia. I think we are positively political.

How do you respond to your critics? Many observers have felt that the U.N. and its agencies have become stooges of neo-imperialistic countries.

People in the West sometimes ask why we are still there. However, the Arab countries and the Palestinians very much want us to continue with our work there until a political solution is reached. They want us to assist the refugees. In the U.N. General Assembly, our constituency has always been the G-77 countries, the non-aligned countries. India is a big supporter.

However, we campaign against the radicalisation of refugees. We try to stay away from their politics. In Syria, there is a lot of war by proxy forces. There is a lot of interference in refugee camps too. The conditions may generate a lot of radicalisation. There are about 100,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria at present. We are worried about the situation of the refugees in the Syria that will emerge out of the ongoing crisis. Syria has dealt with the Palestinian refugees very very humanely in the past 65 years, I must say. But we are worried about the future.

About your question that the U.N. has been acting like a tool of neo-imperialistic countries, I do not think so. When we go to these imperialistic countries, we hear that the UNRWA is a tool of developing countries and the non-aligned countries. I always say that when you are accused by everybody, you are probably in the right direction.

How has the UNRWA been working in conflict-ridden Syria?

The situation has been quite bad. Unfortunately, the Palestinian refugees live in concentrated colonies. They call them refugee camps. They are really like villages, some of the biggest are in the suburbs of Damascus. One of the biggest is the Yarmouk camp. More than half of these locations have become theatres of war. Palestinians have had to flee even more than others, even internally. It has become more difficult for them to cross borders. They are not allowed to go to Jordan. Jordanians say they are already overburdened. They went to Lebanon, where they are not living very well. They are trapped inside Syria. We have stepped up humanitarian assistance. We have 12 camps, out of which eight have become inaccessible. We have got some resources from the Syrian government but they are not adequate. We have been appealing to both the government and the rebels to consider the situation of the refugees. But it has become very difficult. Of the 150,000 Palestinians who stayed in Yarmouk, only 20,000 are left now. It has become almost impossible to access these camps since January. We think that it is important to take humanitarian assistance to these 20,000 people so that others are encouraged to come back. But it is difficult.

What has been the Syrian government’s response to the refugee question?

The UNRWA has had a long relationship with the Syrian government. So we are very familiar. The Syrians have been very cooperative but this is a situation of war. We continue to talk about access. The officials have been cooperative, but it is difficult for them to provide enough support. The opposition, being so fragmented, is very difficult to approach. Our dialogue with them is not about peace or negotiation but about access to these camps. We had to talk to rebels who are on the ground. It is not an easy situation. I went there in June. I went to Homs from Damascus. It is very difficult to travel. You have to negotiate with three or four interlocutors. You have to cross a dozen checkpoints. You hear a lot of shelling and pass through areas that are embattled.

At a time when the U.S. and Israel are looking for a military solution in Syria, what are the UNRWA’s priorities?

The priority right now is to stay there and keep working. Because if you pull out, the situation will be far worse. Of course, if the conflict escalates a lot, it will be difficult. Whatever shape the conflict takes in future, our priority is to ensure that we have access to these camps.

It is also important that those who want to flee from this situation should be allowed to go to other areas inside the country or outside the country.

For people who are working for the UNRWA, it is extremely dangerous now. We also have to look after their safety. We work very closely with other agencies. While we work mostly on facilitating education and health facilities to refugees, the priority now is to bring emergency services. Food and money are needed. That is what war brings on. In such a situation we provide services to everyone in the camps, even if he/she is not a Palestinian. We have about 15,000 people sheltered in our facilities as internally displaced Syrian people.

There has been some hostility from friendlier countries also to accept Palestinian refugees. Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, for example. All these countries took a lot of Palestinian refugees in. However, Jordan, in particular, took a position against the Palestinian refugees. They said that they would not be able to take in more Palestinians as they felt they were overburdened with refugees. We requested the Jordanians to reconsider their position from a humanitarian point of view. Around 8,500 of them have crossed over to Jordan. Our requests are not being taken into consideration. Recently, the Lebanese also said that they were overburdened. Twenty-five per cent of the population in Lebanon is refugees from Syria. I am not even talking about Palestinians who were already in Lebanon. These are the consequences of a volatile political situation. It is a disaster.

Israel has been constructing walls along its border for a long time now to restrict the movement of people. What is your position?

Each country is sovereign in its own territory. The problem with the Israeli walls is that they are built on Palestinian land. It encroaches upon Palestinian territory, thereby violating the ceasefire line decided in the 1967 peace agreement. The U.N. and other agencies see it as a violation of the 1967 peace agreement. International law also objects to it.

More than a legal and political issue, it is also a humanitarian issue. Walls divide communities; they separate people from schools, from hospitals, from their relatives. They took away the land that belongs to Palestinians. They prevent them from growing olives and vegetables on that land. That is why we have always raised this issue. You can build walls, but build them on your land, the land that is universally recognised as your land now.

Many Palestinian refugees languish in Israeli prisons. What is the UNRWA’s position on this?

This is really not our mandate. This is a very important issue for Palestinians. But it is also a very complicated issue because some of these people have been accused of violent attacks. But it is a good sign that Israelis have agreed to release some of the prisoners.

Does the UNRWA foresee a political solution between Israel and Palestine?

This, again, is not our mandate. However, a long-term political solution should definitely take into consideration the perspectives of the refugees. They should not be forgotten. They should be consulted for solutions.

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