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.”

Mr Grandi compared today’s parlous situation with 2009 when UNWRA received many contributions for Gaza.

“The blockade is still there, the people are still poor. The infrastructure is crumbling, the water is undrinkable, the population is growing and I have a hard time convincing donors to give me enough money to distribute food to the people. So, you know, marginalisation has very much a human impact it is not just a political issue,” he said.

“The Israelis eased the blockade after 2010 but it is still a small opening of the door. The door has to be opened fully. It is not a matter of negotiating how many trucks [carrying supplies] go in and out on a day-to-day basis but accepting the principle that the blockade is illegal under humanitarian law and not conducive to stability and security in the region.” Mr Gilmore called for the blockade to be lifted when he visited Gaza, Mr Grandi stated.

Marginalisation also means that the issues of Israel’s wall, checkpoints and restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank are “not being raised”. Palestinians in Syria are being physically impacted by the war.

While the Palestine Liberation Organisation said 400-500 Palestinians have been killed, UNWRA gives out no figures because no one knows what the correct figures are. Palestinians “are poor, they are suffering. This is why they become very vulnerable,” he stated.

“Palestinians always get stuck . . . Stuck in Gaza, stuck in the West Bank, stuck in Lebanon, and now stuck in Syria . . . where they were well treated. Lebanon and Jordan are reluctant to allow Palestinians in. Jordan has permitted only a few to enter while Lebanon has adopted a pragmatic, flexible approach and received a few thousand.”

There is a “pervasive sense of fear in Syria where the popu- lation is not accustomed to war, particularly a conflict in which people do not know the identities of fighters they encounter who can rob, kill, or kidnap. The uncertainty provokes total anxiety . . . I have seen a lot of conflict but I have hardly ever seen such a high level of anxiety in civilians as in Syria.”

UN Relief Agency: The facts

* Unrwa serves five million Palestinian refugees in four countries; 1.5 million live in camps

* Unrwa’s budget shortfall is $37.4 million

* Gaza emergency appeal shortfall is $127.2 million

* West Bank emergency appeal shortfall is $43.9 million

* Syria emergency appeal shortfall is $31.6 million

* 225,000 of the 500,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria are directly affected by the conflict.

* The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Pro- tection department donated more than €11 million to the agency’s humanitarian programmes this year.