An Unsustainable Refugee Crisis

20 June 2014
An Unsustainable Refugee Crisis
Op Ed for World Refugee Day by the Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Pierre Krähenbühl

One hundred and twenty children were recently allowed out of Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, to sit public exams.  The fourteen-year-olds emerged from the apocalyptic city-scape they call home shell-shocked and bewildered, child victims of one of the most pitiless conflicts of our age. 

Two weeks later those same children returned to Yarmouk to be reunited with their families, to a place where UN food deliveries are meeting just a quarter of the nutritional requirements of over 18,000 civilians trapped there in an extraordinarily harsh environment, an environment in which the absence of medical care can result in death from conditions that are otherwise easily treated and cured.

It was a bitter-sweet, profoundly tragic moment that cruelly exposed the hopelessness confronting those young students. Moreover, it was a metaphor that poignantly encapsulated the unsustainability of the Palestine refugee crisis in the Near East. 

In Syria more than fifty per cent of the 550,000 UNRWA registered refugees have been displaced by the conflict with over half of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps where we work transformed into theatres of war.  On World Refugee Day, the plight of this often forgotten population must be acknowledged and the dramatic context in which they struggle to survive understood in all its complexity.  

Beyond Syria, unsustainability confronts Palestine refugees living in the West Bank where the human impact of the Israeli occupation and settlement expansion is multi-dimensional and profound. Palestine refugees are subject to a permit system that prevents freedom of movement. Many are forced to deal with home demolitions and land expropriations. Children and ordinary civilians face increased threats from the use of live ammunition. The West Bank barrier is destroying whole communities. The occupation is synonymous with de-development, stifling economic life with predictable human consequences. Food insecurity in Palestine has reached 33 per cent, affecting 1.6 million people according to UNRWA’s latest food survey. 

In Gaza, unsustainability has many yardsticks. One in particular has struck me profoundly. The number of Palestine refugees coming to UNRWA for food handouts has increased from 80,000 in 2000 to over 800,000 today. When last in Gaza I met a once prosperous businessman who has now joined the UNRWA food line, a tragic transformation which puts a human face to the notion of this untenable situation. In Gaza there are many. Youth unemployment stands at 65 per cent. Unemployment among young women is 80 per cent. Unsustainability has an alarming environmental aspect in Gaza. 90 percent of water is unsafe to drink. The entire aquifer is likely to be unusable as early as 2016, with the damage irreversible by 2020 if present policies are not changed. There are few immediate signs that they will be. 

Projections for the numbers of Palestine refugees UNRWA may have to serve in the coming years underlines the unsustainability of the refugee crisis. In 2012, 5.27 million people were registered with UNRWA. This is expected to increase to 5.75 million in 2016 and 6.46 million in 2021. The number of those registered with us as “poor” will rise to 1.7 million in 2021. 

With each passing day, it becomes an increasing imperative to listen to the voices of the dispossessed and heed their enduring warnings about loss and fear. Decades on, and with so many other crises affecting the Middle-East and the world, there is a real risk that their fate will be overshadowed and seen as an “old story”. I would argue that neglecting the plight of Palestine refugees is a risk the world cannot take.

Yet from Yarmouk, to the dismal Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon swollen by over 50,000 new arrivals from Syria, to the refugee communities trapped behind the barrier in the West Bank and on to the downward spiral in Gaza, unsustainability haunts almost all aspects of life. I have yet to meet a refugee who wanted to be a refugee and even less so, who wished to remain a refugee. Palestine refugees are no different. Their call for a just and lasting solution to their plight must be heard.

Until this is achieved UNRWA has a transformative role to play. During times of relative peace, our human development work in education, health, relief and social services promotes stability, dignity and respect for rights. In times of war, our emergency assistance builds resilience and mitigates the denial of rights to some, albeit an inadequate extent. 

Now in our seventh decade, UNRWA’s contribution speaks for itself: we have achieved some of the highest literacy rates in the Middle-East, dramatic reductions in child and maternal mortality. Our commitment rivals that of any humanitarian actor, working under fire to provide emergency relief in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.  This will continue until a solution to the plight of the Palestine refugees is found. I understood from day one that UNRWA’s mandate is not for sale.  

I believe passionately that UNRWA’s contribution is inextricably linked to that of the refugees who make up the vast majority of our staff. Like all refugees, the Palestinians are also individuals with achievements and pride. They are victims of injustice, of occupation, blockade and conflict. They are also actors in their own development with skills that many in the world would envy. Palestinians are justly proud of the comparative literacy rates of their children and the highest attainment levels of generations of professionals. 

UNRWA’s efforts will focus both on mobilizing hosts and donors to preserve and further strengthen our achievements, while raising the importance of increasingly recognizing that international assistance must come with the promotion of rights and dignity. Let us not forget that this is a crisis with a human face be it those shell-shocked children in Yarmouk, the ex-businessman in the UNRWA food line in Gaza or any of the five million individual refugees registered with us. No amount of aid will ever make up for the denial of their rights and dignity.