“Palestine Refugees: An Unresolved Question at the Time of the Syria Crisis”

06 October 2013
“Palestine Refugees: An Unresolved Question at the Time of the Syria Crisis”

Lecture by Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA)

Pontifical Catholic University,
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
4 October 2013

Thank you, Professor Scalercio, for your introduction. Allow me to also thank Paulo Esteves and the Instituto de Relações Internacionais for the kind invitation to address you today.   I am delighted to have the opportunity to meet all of you at this important institution and eminent centre of learning.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am in Brazil for the second time in just over a year. This is a reflection of the strong concern, commitment and growing role that the Brazilian government and people play in supporting Palestine and Palestinians, including the refugees. It is also an indication of how much we at UNRWA - and I in particular! - are proud and excited to have embarked on a road towards partnership with Brazil - not only with the federal government but also with a rich variety of local government institutions, civil society, organizations and communities.

Brazil - an emerging global actor with a rich and complex history of pursuit of freedom, rights, justice and equality - is attracting much interest among those of us who operate in situations of crisis, conflict, violence and deprivation. Brazil is also, obviously, in the process of exploring and developing its opportunities in the international arena, and increasingly bearing the responsibilities that come with broader influence and reach. This is a great nation which is undergoing many extraordinary processes and transitions. Becoming a globally responsible actor is not the least among them.

Of course, from my specific perspective, I attach much importance to the key role which Brazil can play in an institution like our organization, UNRWA - the only United Nations agency whose area of operations is not global but regional, and which deals with a single group of people; but also the organization tackling one of the consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the regional crisis which is perhaps of most global concern in today’s world from the political, security, economic and cultural points of view: and Brazil cannot ignore a global concern, even if it stems from a relatively distant region.

Let me also add that the founding philosophy of this university  - humanism, service to the community, comprehensive responsibility – is ever so critical to reflect upon.  As we witness in particular the devastating consequences of the war in Syria -  including well beyond its borders - these values, which also underpin the work of the United Nations, have particular resonance and urgency.

The theme of my remarks, “Palestine Refugees: an Unresolved Question at the Time of the Syria Crisis”, sounds quite conceptual, but - and especially from the perspective of UNRWA - it is in fact, at its core, about people, individual lives, and the well-being of communities.  I will seek to impress upon you how the long-standing and unresolved plight of Palestine refugees has resulted in a continuous state of vulnerability for a people often forgotten and deprived of their most fundamental rights; how this vulnerability is exacerbated by the conflict in Syria, as it has been in other wars in past decades; and how the work of UNRWA continues to contribute to both the human development and the resilience of Palestine refugees throughout the Middle East, and indeed to their strength as a community to withstand challenges and prepare for a better future.

The issue of Palestine refugees has been a compelling political and humanitarian crisis since their original dispersion from their homes 63 years ago - a crisis inscribed in the broader, tragic history of all Palestinians in the last decades, and in fact defining that history - more so, perhaps, than any other of its elements. Now the war in Syria, its consequences for Palestinians among others, and its shocking devastation and violence, overlap with this story of dispossession and hardship.

Let me take one step back into history so you can fully appreciate the layers of vulnerability that affect this refugee population - a population and a refugee crisis too often forgotten although they are part of a conflict which has become, unfortunately, a household name amidst the conflicts of our time.  In the 1948 first Arab-Israeli war, about 750,000 Palestinians either fled or were forced to flee their homes in what had become the State of Israel. They went largely to the  countries and lands where UNRWA’s operations are now based: the Gaza Strip, then administered by Egypt; the West Bank, then under Jordanian control; Jordan itself; Lebanon and Syria. UNRWA was created by the UN General Assembly soon thereafter, in 1949, to address the plight of the refugees from Palestine. The Six Day War in 1967 resulted in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which continues to this day: some of the 1948 refugees who had fled there went into further displacement elsewhere, but most remained, living under the occupation of the same power which had been the cause of their exile. All of them continued to depend on UNRWA for support and assistance.

It was, and remains, one of the largest refugee crises in contemporary history; and in the absence of a political solution to the conflict (and hence to the refugees’ plight) it has become one of its most protracted. Today five million refugees, a figure which includes the children and grandchildren of those who originally fled in 1948, are registered with UNRWA, all of them deserving protection and eligible for our basic services:  education, health and poverty relief, as well as critical emergency aid in times of crisis.

The status of this population, and indeed its conditions, vary from one field of operation to the next. In Gaza, Palestinians live under the Israeli blockade, which compounds the 46 years of military occupation they have suffered.  Certainly, the situation is complex, and made more complex by Palestinian political divisions. Israel has security concerns, which must be considered. However, the Gaza blockade is one of the harshest occupation measures of modern times, and it is unfair and illegal as it is targeted at the entire civilian population in the Strip. This has been made even more challenging by the convulsions which have agitated Egypt in the past few years, and which have made the utilization of the only crossing point between Gaza and Egypt, Rafah, difficult and erratic. It is almost impossible for people in Gaza to move in and out of the Strip, and very little movement of goods (in particular exports)  is allowed by Israel.  Close to two million people, two thirds of whom are refugees, are thus confined to 365 square kilometres.

In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, where one third of the population - almost 800,000 people - are registered as Palestine refugees, a complex web of policies and restrictions that thrives under the umbrella of military occupation has been slowly depriving Palestinians of assets, of livelihood, even of legal residence, for the past few decades. In parallel, Israeli settlements continue to outrageously expand and prosper, swallowing land, space and resources against some of the most basic principles of international law.

Meanwhile, twenty years of peace process have created the expectation of positive movement in the occupied Palestinian territory. But for Palestinians on the ground, conditions simply get worse and worse. What is often described as a status quo is in fact a constantly evolving situation: except that for Palestinians, the dynamics are all negative. Many of those with resources seek to rebuild their lives elsewhere.  A human rights agency recently reported that one third of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem are threatened with destruction; there is simply no escaping this obvious, yet still shocking conclusion: that the slow drain of Palestinians from their cities and land is a key driver of the long-term strategy of occupation.

It is remarkable that in this context, direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians have recently resumed, crucially facilitated by the United States: it is imperative that they succeed, overturning the negative trends of the past years and creating the premises for peace on all the key issues underpinning the conflict - a peace that must be just and durable, and touch all those concerned, including refugees and including Gaza.

In Lebanon, a country with a fraught history of difficult relationships and balances between ethnic and religious communities, Palestine refugees are legally barred from most professions and have thus little access to economic opportunities.  Many, and especially the poorest and most vulnerable, languish in sub-standard living conditions that are compounded by the strict limits that the authorities place on the entry of materials to improve the infrastructure of the refugee camps.

In Jordan, the environment has been more stable than anywhere else in the region; some two million Palestine refugees enjoy a form of citizenship and have access to jobs and services. However, as refugees, they have always been more exposed than Jordanians to the inevitable hardships and tensions during times of instability, economic problems and political crisis.

Paradoxically, until 2011, the situation of Palestine refugees was most stable in Syria, where they were afforded a wide range of rights.  Property ownership had limits and travel abroad was regulated, but other than that, they were made to feel - and indeed did feel - relatively secure.   Most were poor, most struggled, but they valued greatly the stability they enjoyed.  That this haven has turned so quickly into a living hell for them is stark evidence not only of the extreme brutality of the Syria conflict, but also of their  vulnerability as a community.


Palestine refugees of course have no monopoly on suffering in the broad battlefield which Syria has become. You do not have to look much further than the last TV news bulletin to appreciate the depth of suffering and feel the urgency of the protection needs of the entire civilian population.  The ongoing brutality of this conflict is a daily affront to our humanity.

However, the Palestinian experience in Syria and surrounding countries does warrant specific attention.  Before the fighting began over two years ago, there were 529,000 Palestine refugees living in Syria and registered with UNRWA. By and large, though many were poor, they led productive, peaceful and dignified existences. During the first few months of the war, the camps and areas where they lived were more or less respected by the parties to the conflict.  Unfortunately, and tragically, this relative insulation from the fighting has collapsed, with Palestinian refugee camps gradually transformed into battle zones.  As a result, today more than half of the Palestinians in Syria have been displaced again; and over 60,000 have fled Syria, mostly to Lebanon, but some also to Jordan and even to Egypt, Gaza and beyond.

The suffering of the Palestinians affected by the Syria crisis has further dimensions that raise significantly their vulnerability and their acute need for protection.

The first is that - to use technical refugee terminology - their “flight options” are severely limited, whether inside or outside Syria.  In Syria, since almost all camps are in or near conflict areas, they keep moving from one place to the next, often into greater danger, and increasingly with a sense of resigned fate. Movement to neighbouring states is difficult. Jordan is closed to fleeing Palestinians.  Lebanon is becoming reticent about the entry of more Palestinians and can hardly accommodate those who arrive. Other countries see the arrival of Palestinians from Syria as a particular problem and their policies often reflect this. We should not forget of course that Palestinians flee among hundreds of thousands of Syrian citizens - indeed, more than two million Syrians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries - and are thus also part of one of the most disastrous and large forced human displacements of our times.

Second, the conflict is destroying the locus, indeed the heart, of many communities in Syria. The Palestinians are not exempted, and because they are not in their country, their uprooting is more devastating.  UNRWA’s commitment to maintaining services – to keep the schools and clinics running – is also an effort to keep families together, to keep support systems functioning, to keep communities from unraveling.   It is this feature, this loss of community, this loss of grounding, that makes so many Palestinians compare current events in Syria to the nakba, the “catastrophe”, their original dispossession in 1948.   The older refugees say that at least in 1948 they were welcomed in solidarity.  In 2013, the doors are barely open to these second-time refugees or displaced, partially because of the enormous overall burden of the Syrian refugee outpouring.

The loss of Syria as a safe haven has reverberations on the Palestinian psyche everywhere. Yarmouk, a Damascus neighbourhood once home to 160,000 Palestinians, and considered emotionally as a “piece of Palestine in Syria,”  is now under siege and on the edge of obliteration as the parties to the conflict seem to move towards mutually destructive engagement there. Those few refugee families blocked inside Yarmouk are desperately calling to inform us that they have only sugar and water to live on.  This once overcrowded but bustling urban quarter has quickly become synonymous with loss for the Palestinians in Syria.  It has also turned into one of the most emblematic tragedies of this cruel war.

The geopolitical repercussions of the Syrian Palestine refugee crisis are significant, too. The protracted limbo of the Palestine refugees in general is, of course, a direct consequence of the lack of a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.  Since its inception in 1949, UNRWA has always been part of a temporary arrangement, one in which neighbouring states agreed to host refugees from Palestine in the short term, while a political solution was found and UNRWA helped support the material needs of refugees, thus relieving the burden on host countries and communities.

This precarious arrangement is now made more complicated by the Syria conflict - just like it was by other preceding wars in areas of refuge of Palestinians, especially the civil war in Lebanon. The Palestinian refugee question is difficult enough to solve in times of stability - it risks becoming almost intractable if some of the most stable refugee communities become scattered and displaced again, as is the case in Syria, including in countries which already host large refugee communities. In turn, the Palestinian element of the Syria crisis (in spite of efforts by the Palestinian leadership and UNRWA, and indeed of the Palestinians themselves, to encourage refugee communities to stay away from fighting), has become one more element of complexity in an already very complicated conflict: rebuilding the indispensable, rich coexistence of cultures and communities that constitutes Syria will be one of the great challenges of post-conflict, and it will now have to include the Palestine refugees.

It is positive that earlier this week, after a long and shameful delay, the Security Council finally issued a presidential statement calling for humanitarian space to be created and respected in Syria. I hope that concrete efforts will be made accordingly, and that the parties to the conflict will uphold them. Within those efforts, it is critical that work be done to ensure that safe space in Syria is restored and respected also for Palestinians. Otherwise the consequences of protracted Palestinian displacement in and from Syria will be a further deterioration of stability in a region that cannot afford it. It will also be, by the way, a step further from an overall solution to the long and painful plight of Palestine refugees, at a time when - as already mentioned - direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians are meant to encompass all elements of their conflict, including of course the question of refugees.

Palestinian displacement from Syria is also part of the impact which population movements are having on Syria’s neighbours.  Lebanon, where the confessional system of governance is fragile even at times of relative peace, is now choking under the pressure of an enormous refugee influx, including almost 50,000 Palestinians.  In Jordan, the frustration of some segments of the Palestinian refugee population is adding to a political mix that many fear could fuel instability. And underlying this are the economic pressures which the Syria crisis is creating across the region, with its potential to disrupt the social and political order. Ask anyone in these countries what the “Palestinian factor” brings to this complex equation and you will understand the extent - and the risk - of this regional anxiety.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

What to do? Humanitarian action can never be a substitute for political solutions.   However, there is a desperate need for both in the Syria crisis.  I believe firmly that with regional tensions mounting, and with needs deepening and broadening, the work of humanitarian organizations like UNRWA becomes ever more important in taking the edge off the desperation of individuals, and in mitigating collective concerns.

Take UNRWA’s work. I would argue for example that our cash distributions in Syria, or to the newly arrived refugees in Lebanon; our emergency shelter provisions in schools in Damascus and elsewhere in the country, which are available to both Palestinians and Syrians; our emergency health programmes and the distribution of simple items such as disinfectants – all these play a role in ways which in times of crisis can be incalculable. They make a real difference to Palestinians in distress and reduce tensions in communities at large.

UNRWA has always aimed to support the resilience of Palestine refugees and prepare them for a future marked by self-sufficiency and self-determination. I am proud to say that even in the dramatic circumstances of the Syria conflict today, this approach continues, often exposing our staff - just like the staff of other humanitarian organizations - to great risks: UNRWA has already lost eight staff members, and 17 are missing.

But as we mourn our lost colleagues and - together with other  humanitarian organizations - do our best to boost the security of those who operate in dangerous areas, our work must continue. Health and education services help sustain families and hold communities together.  By initial count, we have 37,000 Palestinian children in school in Syria today, at the start of the school year. This is half our normal number, because children cannot always go to school, just as patients cannot attend clinics, as it is often too dangerous.  Innovative  services like health points and satellite TV education help address this situation, while our microfinance programme sustains through creative ways new businesses that have sprung up amidst the conflict.   

Bringing humanitarian relief to the suffering and striving to maintain basic services in Syria are thus crucial. To ensure this, UN plans must be fully funded. Pressure must be brought to bear on all donor countries for significant and sustained funding.  Meanwhile, neighbouring countries must be supported adequately so they do not implode from a combination of political, economic or resource pressures.   Refugees fleeing conflict must be allowed access to territory, protected, assisted and provided asylum. But what is essential is to bring the conflict to an end. There are no ready solutions, and they are certainly not military ones. Ceasefires must be negotiated to spare civilians, international humanitarian law must come to the forefront of political discussions, and a negotiated end to the conflict must be the main goal.  In the midst of this, as I have stressed, Palestine refugees in and from Syria require special attention and protection.  They are in a particularly precarious situation and neglecting their plight will exacerbate growing instabilities.  


Ladies and Gentlemen,


The dramatic situation of Palestine refugees in Syria is the most acute crisis which they are currently facing. However, as we have seen, they are among the most fragile groups in all the societies in which they live. Chief among the  reasons of this vulnerability is the fact that their refugee status remains unresolved, and their exile continues everywhere. In spite of the passage of time and even where they have lived for two or three generations in relative peace and stable coexistence with host communities, refugee status continues to set them apart as a temporary group, unable to return to a state which they call their own, and to permanent homes. Their vulnerability as refugees is thus compounded by the deprivation of their right to a just and durable solution. Conversely, the shocks of conflict and poverty, to which they are occasionally exposed just like their host communities, as in Syria today, almost inevitably lay bare and exacerbate this vulnerability.

The right to a just solution to their exile pertains to all refugees. But being deprived of this right for over 60 years makes the humanitarian and political imperative in relation to the Palestine refugees all the more compelling; their current travails, combined with their political disenfranchisement, makes their plight worthy of our concern and action.

Above all, and beyond Syria, we must therefore not lose sight of the urgent need for Palestine refugees at large to be given a political resolution of their statelessness and dispossession. Without it, the Middle East will not find peace and its people will be deprived of the security and dignity for which they rightly yearn. In this context, Brazil’s role in promoting peace and in adding its powerful voice to efforts to ensure the stability and prosperity of the Middle East are needed and important.

For this reason, and from our point of view, I have urged the federal government to increase its material support to Palestinians, including through UNRWA; and to join UNRWA’s Advisory Commission - one of the multilateral fora in which Brazil could play a significant role in shaping policies and helping people in the Middle East. For this reason I have also reached out to Brazil’s communities of Arab origin, especially in São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul, and have been encouraged by their willingness to help us in our work.


Let me conclude by stressing this point. In the politically fraught context of the Middle East, Brazil’s contributions - political, moral and economic - will come more free of heavy historical baggage than is the case with other players; as such they will serve the important purposes of sounding impartially authoritative, and of introducing new ideas, approaches and relationships.


The plight of Palestine refugees, inscribed in the difficult history of the Palestinian people and in the context of a region shattered again by conflict, are daunting but must not be intimidating. Let me return to where I started: we need not cast our moral net too far and wide; we have to simply look to the values of this university and of the United Nations - humanism, human rights, community service, the sense of a shared world and a common destiny, and the imperative to courageously uphold and apply all these values - and the answers which we require to move forward even in one of the most complex regions of the world, will become more readily apparent, to all of us.


Thank you.

Background Information: 

UNRWA is confronted with an increased demand for services resulting from a growth in the number of registered Palestine refugees, the extent of their vulnerability and their deepening poverty. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions and financial support has been outpaced by the growth in needs. As a result, the UNRWA programme budget, which supports the delivery of core essential services, operates with a large shortfall. UNRWA encourages all Member States to work collectively to exert all possible efforts to fully fund the Agency’s programme budget. UNRWA emergency programmes and key projects, also operating with large shortfalls, are funded through separate funding portals. UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5.4 million Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA across its five fields of operation. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, protection and microfinance.

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