Interview

‘One Cannot Simply Wish Away 5 Million People’

The U.N. agency chief for Palestinian refugees warns funding cuts risk undermining Middle East stability.

Pierre Krähenbühl, left, the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, meets with Palestinian students at a U.N.-run school in the southern Gaza Strip. (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)
Pierre Krähenbühl, left, the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, meets with Palestinian students at a U.N.-run school in the southern Gaza Strip. (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

For months now, President Donald Trump has been working to alter U.S. policy toward Palestinian refugees, who number more than 5 million across the Middle East. He cut $300 million in funding earlier this year to the United Nations agency that provides aid and services to the refugees, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). And his advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been trying to get Arab countries to strip the Palestinians of their refugee status.

UNRWA was established in 1949 to assist and protect Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the war over Israel’s independence. The agency employs nearly 30,000 Palestinians across the region, including up to 13,000 in Gaza.

Foreign Policy spoke recently to Pierre Krähenbühl, the Swiss national who leads UNRWA, about the agency and its relationship with Washington.

FP: What tangible impact have the U.S. cuts had on your operations?

PK: In the case of Gaza we just … had to announce cuts to some of our emergency services like community mental health, job creation, there was even a risk for our food distribution in Gaza. This resulted in [layoffs of] … about 113 staff members, and for about 500 others we have to find temporary solutions, sort of have working half-time as opposed to getting the full contract. In a context where unemployment is so critical as in Gaza, and where alternatives for people who lose their jobs are so limited, it immediately led to our compound being stormed by angry protesters and for about 20 days we lost control of that compound.

FP: Even before the U.S. indicated it would cut $300 million from your budget, UNRWA faced a perennial shortfall of more than $100 million each year. How are you filling the gap?

PK: We mobilized an additional $238 million from member states—from the Gulf countries all the way across to Japan back to Canada and Turkey, India, and many others. My sense was that we had just enough to open the schools on time, which I think is very important for the dignity of the students but also regional stability. So, this is encouraging, this is important, but we still have for this year over $200 million to find in order to ensure that the schools for example won’t just open but can actually be run. So it’s a very unstable phase for us.

FP: The White House has accused UNRWA of exaggerating its dire financial straits, that you often complain that you lack sufficient funds to open schools. Last week, Palestinian schools opened on time.

PK: It is not in my interest, and by the way not my practice, to overstate things. But we’re really trying here to present as faithfully as we can a realistic assessment of the situation in these very difficult environments. We [are] … running 711 schools in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem and Gaza, in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, for Palestine refugees. That’s over 525,000 students, boys and girls. To put it in the U.S. context, UNRWA’s school system would represent in the U.S. the third-largest school system after New York and Los Angeles. We don’t have, for example, the luxury to say, “This year, instead of having 525,000 children in our schools, we’ll only take 250,000,” because that immediately impacts, of course, stability in the region. And this is not something that I wish to play with.   

FP: For years, UNRWA has faced criticism from Israeli authorities that it is biased against Israel, that it has employed Hamas militants, and that it has enabled terrorists to use its facilities for military purposes aimed at harming Israel. Can you address those charges?

PK: We operate in one of the most polarized and emotionally charged environments on the planet. Now, when you work in a polarized environment like that, you expect that there will be at times criticism … and by the way, at times it is criticism in Israel, at times there’s criticism on the Palestinian side. When, for example, last year we found out that two of our staff members had been appointed into positions within Hamas that were incompatible, very evidently, with the rules and regulations of our organization and its principles, we investigated the matter and dismissed and separated this staff. When we found out during repair works under two of our schools in the Gaza Strip last year that tunnels had been built by Hamas below the schools, we condemned it and we took action to remedy that situation. We take these measures extremely seriously, because we know that we will be challenged and we will be scrutinized.

FP: Israel and the United States maintain that Palestinians are the only people in the world who are allowed to pass their refugee status down through generations.

PK: That is clearly a misrepresentation. UNRWA, in ways that are no different from the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], considers children and descendants of refugees as refugees. … Let me take an example of a country that I that I know well, which is Afghanistan. So imagine we have the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Millions of Afghans flee the country to Iran and mainly Pakistan. And they are supported and assisted of course primarily by UNHCR but also other organizations. We have now, in the case of Afghanistan, families that have been in, say, Peshawar now for a generation. They have been there for 40 years, arguably not quite as long as Palestinian refugees have been refugees, but it’s already a very protracted situation. And, of course, UNHCR considers the children and grandchildren of the original refugee who fled Afghanistan in 1979 as refugees. That is a principle that in no way is different between Palestine refugees and Afghan refugees, or for that matter refugees from Angola, Burma, Burundi, or Sudan or elsewhere. It rests on the notion that family unity, the principle of family unity, is keeping families united and together as one of the key parameters of managing refugee crises.

FP: Jordan has granted citizenship to more than 2 million Palestinian refugees. Why, then, are they still considered refugees?

PK: The Jordanian government insists … that UNRWA continue to provide essential services. This was made very clear by His Majesty the King [Abdullah], by the foreign minister, in recent visits to Washington. They refuse to take over the responsibility for that community.

FP: What would life for the refugees be if UNRWA were to be dismantled?

PK: If UNRWA didn’t exist tomorrow, and even if UNHCR didn’t exist, the world would still have to tackle the reality of protracted, long-term refugee situations that are impacting the well-being of people, but also the security and stability of states in many parts of the world. One cannot simply wish away 5 million people.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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