Protecting Palestinians from turmoil
Palestinian refugees are increasingly suffering from the effects of the Syrian civil war
FILIPPO GRANDI, head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), the UN agency caring for Palestinian refugees, is in Dublin for meetings with Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore, who visited Gaza in January. He will also meet junior minister Joe Costello, legislators and Irish Aid.
Ireland is a member of UNWRA’s advisory commission and has “in the past few years become much more a part of UNWRA’s work,” Mr Grandi told The Irish Times. He wishes to thank Ireland for its strong support of the refugees, particularly those in Gaza, where a close connection was forged with Ireland by UNWRA’s former chief of Gaza operations John Ging.
Mr Grandi will discuss with the Government the renewal of the two-year standing funding agreement between the EU and UNWRA which provides for a minimum of €4 million a year as well as additional funds for special projects.
“We like these multi-year agreements because they give us a little bit of predictability in a very unpredictable funding situation. We hope [the EU] will give us . . . extra funding for Gaza.”
Funding is one of the main problems UNWRA faces. While the agency has gone through troubled financial times before, he said there are new problems. “The aid system is changing very rapidly.” Donors have other demands. “We are expanding and need more money,” he said, due to rising numbers of refugees and soaring costs.
UNWRA relies on voluntary funding to provide services “like a state” to five million Palestinians. Public services should not be supported by voluntary funding. “We have to start from scratch every year,” in order to meet a “relentless payroll for 20,000 teachers and 10,000 other staff members.”
The environment is another serious problem. “I’ve been with UNWRA since 2005. Syria is my third war.” He was working with UNWRA during Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon where Palestinians were bystanders and Israel’s 2008-09 war on Gaza where Palestinians were involved.
UNWRA has already lost four staff members in Syria.
War “raises costs, not just in human terms but also in financial terms”. Over the past decade UNWRA has had to reconstruct in Lebanon and Gaza and now Syria. Another major challenge is that “certain circles” seek to “delegitimise” the refugee issue by attacking UNWRA, accusing the agency of perpetuating the refugee question, and the refugees themselves, arguing they should not exist “beyond the first generation. These attacks are damaging because they weaken our case when we go for funding or support. The refugee question has been perpetuated by a lack of peace.”
The greatest challenge of all is “the marginalisation of [the Palestinian] issue . . . We have five million people whom we have to serve, so this marginalisation is in many ways very dangerous. It pushes back a solution to the question, it perpetuates the refugee problem and it makes it more difficult to obtain support for the refugees.”