Interview with Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General of UNRWA

Filippo Grandi has served in the United Nations for over twenty years, and has worked for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) since 2005, becoming Commissioner-General in 2010. Previously, Mr. Grandi worked for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which he joined in 1988, working with refugees in crises across the wider Middle East and Africa.

In this interview with the Global Observatory, Mr. Grandi discussed the plight of Palestinian refugees in the Occupied Territories and in camps in Jordan and Syria. He also spoke about how Palestinian refugees perceive the Arab Spring; how they are affected by the lack of progress in the peace process; and the chronic underdevelopment and relative absence of economic opportunities.

“Frustration is perhaps the best description of what the Palestinian refugees feel in the present circumstances in the Middle East,” Mr. Grandi said. In hearing that a refugee in the Baqaa camp in Jordan said, “UNRWA was his homeland,” Mr. Grandi responded, “This is a sad reflection of reality that they do not have a homeland, a real homeland. An agency cannot be a homeland.”

Regarding the Israeli blockade of Gaza, Mr. Grandi pointed out that, “Even for the sake of stability of Israel, and Egypt, and the region, and of course, for the welfare and the rights of the Palestinians living there, it is important that the blockade will eventually be lifted.”

In considering the current volatile political landscape in the Middle East, Mr. Grandi emphasized, “One of the key demands of the Palestinian people, especially of the young people, was for their leadership to reconcile,” he said. “It is important that the Palestinians, especially in their difficult political circumstances, have a unified leadership, and become an interlocutor externally, but also internally, for their own people.”

The interview was conducted on November 4, 2011 by Nur Laiq, Senior Policy Analyst, International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript

Nur Laiq (NL): Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), welcome.

UNRWA deals with the 1.4 million Palestinian refugees, living in fifty-eight camps (see map) across Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem and has been providing services to them since 1950. A Palestinian refugee in the Baqaa camp in Jordan recently said “UNRWA is our homeland.”

We are in a moment when the Middle East is witnessing great change, we see revolutions of expectations. Can you describe the atmosphere in the camps in the Occupied Territories? How have the revolutions affected people’s attitudes in the camps given the occupation, the lack of progress in peace process, and their own desire for change?

Filippo Grandi (FG): Frustration is perhaps the best description of what the Palestinian refugees feel in the present circumstances in the Middle East with the Arab Spring having introduced an element of dynamism that was quite unprecedented in the region, having given people, as I always say it, license to speak, having created a space, which is quite extraordinary for people to express their aspirations. This is not confined to the places where the Arab Spring has developed into a movement, into changes, into sometimes problematic situations, but it has had a powerful effect through the global media on all Arabs, I think. On all people in the region, in fact, including the Palestinian refugees, who by the way, are five million, because the mandate of UNRWA is not only over those still in the so-called camps, which are by now, by and large, suburbs of cities, but also those outside.

All Palestinians registered as refugees with UNRWA, numbering now nearly five million—not yet five million—have a right to access to our services. Whilst yes, they have said, and I was there when that refugee in Baqaa camp said UNRWA is our homeland, this is a sad reflection of the reality that they do not have a homeland, a real homeland. An agency cannot be a homeland. The contrast between this dynamic situation in the region and the complete stagnation of the peace process in particular, and within the peace process discussions of solving in a just and sustainable manner the refugee question, this contrast generates enormous frustration, which in a constituency of almost five million people, in a very volatile region, perhaps the most volatile region in the world, in my opinion, is a risk.

NL: You mentioned the license to speak in the Occupied Territories, but what is the situation like in the camps in Jordan and Syria?

FG: First of all, not just in the camps, there’s always a sense that refugees are all in the camps. In fact, most refugees are outside the camps. But no matter where, the frustration is everywhere. Of course circumstances are very different from country to country. In Lebanon, refugees have always been very much excluded from rights and have always lived in difficult circumstances. In Syria and Jordan, refugees have had much greater access to jobs, to decent living conditions, to freedom of movement. The situation has always been much better for Palestinian refugees in the stable Jordan and stable Syria.

Lately, of course, in Syria the situation has become more problematic. As I always say, refugees have not been targeted, but they have, at times, been caught in the general unrest of the country and have suffered some consequences for that, and we have always raised this matter with the government of Syria.

In Jordan, at the moment, the situation is probably the most stable of the countries that host the refugees. This is where in fact we can make more progress in carrying out our program of education, health, and so forth. Also in Jordan, there is a certain tension arising from the regional tensions. The people of Jordan, including the Palestinians who are a very large group in Jordan have been asking for reform. His Majesty the King and his government have started moving along this path. It is important that they continue to move, including addressing some of the demands of the Palestinian population, because that way, that precious stability of the Kingdom of Jordan will be preserved. That, at least, will be a very safe haven so to speak, for the refugees.

NL: We have talked about Syria and Jordan, bearing in mind the recent change of government in Egypt, what does the humanitarian situation in Gaza look like today?

FG: The situation in Gaza is first and foremost affected by the Israeli blockade. The blockade was imposed in 2007 in its most harsh form, as you know, following the takeover by Hamas. The blockade, which is illegal according to international law, has caused many problems to the Gaza strip, in terms of the deterioration of the economic conditions, of infrastructure, of services, of the ability of people to export/import, move, and so forth.

Since 2010, the blockade has been considerably eased. We must recognize this; it is a very important gesture on the part of the Israeli government, which has allowed agencies like UNRWA, UNDP, and others, to carry out reconstruction projects, previously impossible because one of the main features of the blockade was the inability for anybody to import building materials through the legal crossings between Israel and Gaza. Now, the situation there has improved.

As I have been saying to the Israeli authorities, we need to improve further, we need to make these procedures for importing materials much more flexible, and we are talking to them about that. We need to make exports also possible again. At the moment, Palestinians in Gaza cannot export their produce to Israel and the West Bank. They can export further, but their natural markets are Israel and the West Bank. This has to be restored. I say this, although that is not strictly speaking part of my mandate, but I say this because, why are people poor? Because legal economic activities cannot restart. That is why we have to provide humanitarian assistance. We would have to provide less if this was possible.

In respect to Egypt, Egypt has one key responsibility in the system governing access and movement with Gaza, which is the passengers crossing in Rafah. There also, after the change of government, improvements have been made. But there also, I think further progress should be allowed, and we have passed this message to the Egyptian authorities, who are otherwise very cooperative. I think, perhaps also, Egypt could start considering some passage of goods through Rafah into Gaza, although I do fully appreciate the primary responsibility for this lies with Israeli authorities.

The situation continues to be very difficult. As I always say, the economy in Gaza is driven by other subsidies, international aid, like salaries through the Palestinian Authority, which is by and large covered by international contribution or through UNRWA; or through the illegal tunnels. But that is not a healthy economy, that is not an economy that will sustain a stable situation. Therefore, even for the sake of stability of Israel, and Egypt, and the region, and of course, for the welfare and rights of the Palestinians living there, it is important that the blockade eventually be lifted. And that meanwhile, this easing progress is significantly towards better and easier procedures.

NL: I am glad you brought up the issue of economic distress, and the need for a healthy economy. Youth unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza is over 50 percent right now. Do you think we will see the growth of a youth movement, be it a non-violent one or an intifada, what can we expect?

FG: The young people are always the worst-hit by hardship, not only in their current circumstances, unemployment being a very tragic symptom of the situation; not only in their prospects for better lives, economically, and from the point of view of education and so forth; but also in terms of their hopes, aspirations, their attitude to life. You frustrate youth – you generate youth that is aggressive. I think this is one of the greatest risks of the situation in Palestine, and among refugees in general. That is why we are particularly concerned by the young refugees, who are the large majority of refugees.

Anecdotally, in the spring, in March, we are planning together with the European Union, to organize an event in Brussels, to showcase what we do for young refugees, and to also highlight their plight, because we think that this is a strong message coming out of the Arab Spring. Young people matter, and they want to matter, and they want their voice to be heard. I think those in Gaza in particular, but also in many places in the West Bank, suffer greatly from the situation, and it is important to address their plight, because of course the risks are very great. I hope that the evolution of the situation will not lead them towards violence, bur of course, if their problems, and the problems of all Palestinians, are not addressed, there are very great risks they will take that path, and that will be bad for the stability of the entire region.

NL: In the past, you have talked about aid dependency and the sense of hopelessness and despair it feeds into. How are you tackling this issue?

FG: Like I said, UNRWA provides aid in different forms. In Gaza in particular but also in the West Bank, we do run our regular programs, which is really education and health, and through education you can do a lot to address some of these problems. We also have a micro-finance program and other programs, vocational training, and other programs that try to provide opportunities to people, even in the limited circumstances of the Occupied Territories. But, in the end, it is other factors that have to be put in place, other elements of peace and stability that have to be put in place, not by us.

You asked me earlier also about the demands of youth, when the Arab Spring started, one of the key demands of the Palestinian people, especially of the young people, was for their leadership to reconcile. I think this is a very important message that comes from them. And I can only support that message because it is important that the Palestinians, especially in their difficult political circumstances, have a unified leadership and become an interlocutor externally, but also internally, for their own people.

NL: I am glad you touch upon this very important issue, which has been in the news. For our final question, I want to bring up another item in the news – the Palestinian bid for statehood and full membership at the UN. How has this affected the refugee issue?

FG: Well, first of all, let me tell you, I can only here second what the Secretary-General has said many times. The aspiration to a state is a very legitimate aspiration of the Palestinians. How they get there is not really for the head of a humanitarian agency to say. All I can say here is we have to be very careful. Statehood, as it is currently pursued, through United Nations institutions, will not per se address the issue of refugees in a resolutive manner. That can only be solved by dialog between the parties, and an agreement that provides for a solution, finally after more than six decades, to the plight of refugees. A solution however, that has to be first of all, just, in accordance with UN resolutions, many that have been focusing on this issue; and that can only be durable, in our opinion, if refugees are involved in this discussion, or their representatives. This has not been the case so far, and this is something that we are advocating very strongly. And this will not be addressed by the statehood process per se.

NL: Filippo Grandi, thank you very much.

FG: Thank you.