Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency UNRWA, talks to EURACTIV.com about the political, human and financial challenges facing the international community in the context of the Syrian war and beyond.
Pierre Krähenbühl has served as UNRWA Commissioner-General since March 2014. A Swiss national, he has 25 years of experience in humanitarian, human rights and development work. Prior to joining UNRWA, he served as Director of Operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from July 2002 to January 2014.
He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev on the fringes of the Third International Conference on Syria in Brussels (12-14 March).
This is the third conference on supporting Syria and the region hosted by the EU in Brussels. What is the difference this time?
When you have situations like the one in Syria, you may have the feeling of repetition of meetings. But because we are present on the ground, we know that it’s very important to bring understanding and focus on the human consequences of this horrific conflict back again and again, to the attention of decision-makers, and to the attention of the public opinion and others.
So I actually think that these conferences play that role, and it’s a very important one where we raise the human cost. And for Palestine refugees, it’s a unique tragedy inside the wider Syrian tragedy if you want because you have just under half a million Palestine refugees still present in the country.
And in a way, if you think about their situation, you have to think about it in terms of another generation of Palestinians who now have experienced the trauma of loss, of displacement. They know of the stories of their grandparents and their parents in 1948 and 1967, and now the younger generation goes through this trauma as well. And I think these are things that are not anonymous, for example, we lost six of our students last year during the conflict because of the fighting in different parts of Syria. So it’s all very real and very concrete in human terms. To bring it to the attention of decision-makers here in Brussels or elsewhere is very important.
Financing UNRWA is a problem, especially since the United States stopped contributing last year. The European Union is the main contributor but is this enough?
When you work in the humanitarian field, you never quite feel that anything is ever enough because the needs are so big… And of course, we could be doing a lot more. But I think the most important lesson from last year is indeed what you said. First of all, we had the decision by the United States to cut its funding to UNRWA in January. And then we had a very remarkable response by the rest of the world. And it was very inspiring and impressive because the size of our shortfall was $446 million when we started the year, and very few would have thought that it was possible to overcome a shortfall of that size.
And as you said, the European Union has become the single largest donor and several member states are very big contributors. Germany has increased very significantly, also Sweden and the UK, one could name others. It’s a very strong message to Palestine refugees that are not forgotten. Now, of course, every year, you have to start again. And this is what’s happening with our effort again in 2019 and our humble plea to donors is simply not to overlook and forget the situation. Because in a way, the best way to recognize the achievement of last year is to confirm it this year
Without international help, Palestinians in Syria are in a dire situation, with 90% living in absolute poverty – less than $2 a day, according to documents I saw. Can you explain better what is behind the figures?
I should remind that the 560,000 Palestine refugees who lived in Syria before the war, of course, were hoping for a political solution between Israel and Palestine. But those living in Syria had the dignity of mainly covering the needs of their families themselves. They were self-sufficient to a large extent.
Why? Because they were given access to employment in Syria, they had opportunities, they had jobs. They were allowed to open businesses and to establish them, and very few of them actually relied on humanitarian emergency assistance. They would send their children to our schools because they consider them of good quality. They would use the health services that we provided, but not in terms of the basic relief, you had very, very few people needing relief.
Today, of course, everybody has exhausted their reserves. Nobody has any of the sort of cash reserves or others that are there. So if it was not for UNRWA’s services, about 95% of the remaining 440,000 Palestine refugees in Syria today would be completely abandoned to their own fate and destiny. So it’s extremely important to keep that effort going, because it is a unique and uniquely dramatic situation inside the wider Syrian catastrophe.
Millions of Syrians migrated to Europe and to other parts, did this migration also affect the Palestinians in Syria?
Yes, from the original 560,000, about 120,000 are estimated to have fled. In the beginning, they went mainly to Lebanon and Jordan, the larger numbers to Lebanon. But then in 2015, when we had the large groups of Syrians leaving through Turkey, and many of them migrating on to Europe, there were also an estimated 40 to 45,000 Palestinians among them. Many arrived in Europe and but others also elsewhere. Some arrived in Asia, I met some in Brazil, so you have a further, let’s say wider, spread of Palestine refugees throughout the world,
Are you optimistic that one day Palestinians will be able to return to Palestine?
You know, I think the most important thing that would happen is to have what remains the international consensus, although it’s under pressure: to have the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, because that is the fundamental point that provides a choice to Palestine refugees. And that is why in all of the processes of the negotiations in the past, the issue of refugees was also, first of all, an important component, but it was also a sensitive component, and that’s why it became a final status issue, and so UNRWA does not need to advocate per se, that’s not our mandate for the right of return. It’s not our role. It’s in resolutions of the General Assembly. So it’s firmly established there.
But what we say is: what it is required is a political solution. Because it was never the idea to have 70 years of UNRWA. It was never the idea that refugees would have to remain refugees for that long. In the beginning, everybody thought: let us establish an organisation to help Palestine refugees for a short period of time, and then a political solution will be found.
So we are very clear not because we have a political role, but because on the daily basis, we are faced with the human consequences of the unresolved political circumstances that we, of course, continue to call very strongly for a political resolution. That is a horizon that needs to be recreated because whether it is today inside Syria for Palestine refugees, or whether it is in the camps in Lebanon or in the West Bank and Gaza, one of the biggest problems for the community is precisely the absence of a political horizon. And that of course, in a very unstable Middle East, is not a very good development.
Even Syrians can hope for a better future, perhaps return to their homeland. But can you compare the situation of Palestinians in Syria, with those in Jordan or Lebanon?
Many of the Palestine refugees who fled Syria and arrived in Lebanon had a double shock. They had the shock of fleeing the country that had hosted them, and in which they were self-sufficient. And they arrived in the Palestine refugee camps in Lebanon, which are particularly difficult in terms of the social circumstances, economic, the lack of opportunities to work, and when they saw the conditions in which their brothers and sisters had lived for so long, they have that double shock element.
So it tells us something. We cannot simply neglect and overlook the situation of Palestine refugees, I think it’s a big risk for the region. And if we close our eyes to it now, beware of the situation when we reopen those eyes, I think and this is why the reaction last year of the international community to our situation was so positive, because there was a real recognition that Palestine refugees matter and that they’re not simply a byproduct of a complicated post-World War II environment that we can now afford to ignore. It is something that we have to keep investing in.
And you’re right, there is a difference between, say, Palestine refugees or Syrian refugees or Afghan refugees or others. And that is despite all the difficulties, if there is an improvement inside Syria, and if circumstances allow, if there is an improvement inside Afghanistan, then there is an independent state that you can call your own, which is what the Palestinians do not have. And that is something that contributes to the perpetuation of this situation. It is the political failures to resolve the conflict that lead to the perpetuation of refugee situations.
Tell us about the UNRWA personnel, what kind of people are they? Official figures put them at 4,000 in Syria?
Altogether we have 30,000 staff, but 4,000 are in Syria. I think what is very important is to know that 98% of those in general, but also in Syria, are Palestinians, they are Palestine refugees themselves. And this is a very important element because it tells you something about the organization. First of all, it’s not only that we distribute assistance, but we also are one of the largest employers. So we have given opportunities over generations to Palestine refugees to doctors and nurses, education specialist, sanitation, labourers, and others to play a very important role.
But to tell you, for example, a little under a year and a half ago I was in Aleppo, where I went just simply to say thank you to 240 Palestinian staff that we have, who kept all of our schools and clinics open throughout the war in Aleppo. Now, you know, that sounds great, but when you think of what it means: we have also lost 18 colleagues since the beginning of the war and have 28 that are missing. And that is probably, apart from possibly the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the highest number of casualties in a humanitarian organisation active inside Syria.
And it says something about both the courage that the staff have shown to keep the services going, to not give up and to continue to reach both students, but also, of course, patients and people in the community with the assistance, and also the huge risks that are there and have been there inside Syria. UNRWA staff inside Syria deserve the highest respect because of the risks and the role that they played.
What are your main messages to the EU decision makers and counterparts: Federica Mogherini, Johannes Hahn, Christos Stylianides?
When I had the opportunity to meet with both Ms Mogherini and Johannes Hahn earlier in the year, my first message was a message of thanks because the EU last year played an absolutely essential and vital role in helping us bridge that unprecedented shortfall and address what was really an existential threat to our organisation.
And the second message in the specific context of the Syria conference is: while it is entirely legitimate and necessary to focus on the horrific human consequences for millions of Syrians, we must also focus on the fate and plight of hundreds of thousands of Palestine refugees inside Syria, and that the EU and other stakeholders would continue to support us in the effort of keeping schools and health centres open, keeping cash distributions going, and all those efforts.
And then to ask humbly the EU and other partners to maintain the levels of contributions that were reached last year. This is very important both for Syria and for the rest of the region. Because otherwise we, you know, risk again sliding back into a crisis modality which can be avoided this year. And this is an important point.
I guess my very last message is really always to try, as I said earlier, to emphasise the human dimension of this crisis. You know, I like to draw attention to the fact that of all of our students, and we have 50,000 boys and girls in our education system and Syria, a young Palestinian ninth grader last year, Aya Abas, was the highest performing student, and that was across all of the national exams carried out in Syria.
People can be forgiven for not knowing that there are actually national exams being carried out inside Syria at present, but to have a young Palestinian girl reach that level, shows both the courage inside the Palestine refugee community, and how much energy they invest in education, as the one horizon that is there open still for them. And I think this is something we absolutely have to keep going. I think we owe it to Aya and too many other students.