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Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012
Palestinian plight's Tohoku parallels
The civil war in Syria is not only affecting its civilians but also the Palestinian refugees living in exile there, and the situation is deteriorating, the head of a United Nations agency supporting the refugees said during a recent visit to Japan.
Filippo Grandi, commissioner general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), was in Tokyo from Aug. 8 to discuss the situation facing the Palestinian refugees in Syria as well as other parts of the Middle East and to seek financial support for the agency, which is short of funds.
What is happening in Syria is one example of the continuing precarious status of the 5 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip supported by UNRWA.
Established in 1949, the U.N. humanitarian relief agency carries out direct social services such as education, health care and camp improvements to protect the human rights of the Palestinian refugees. Japan has been a donor since 1953.
In an interview with The Japan Times, Grandi, an Italian national, said that since last year, when the internal conflict began in Syria, the agency has had to provide additional humanitarian aid to nearly half of the 500,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria, as their living conditions worsened.
The refugees are basically neutral to both sides in the Syrian conflict — the government and the rebels — but about 20 of them died in late July as violence spread to one of their camps in the suburbs of Damascus, Grandi said.
As the conflict intensifies, more Syrians are internally displaced, and they are seeking shelter in the schools UNRWA operates for Palestinian children, according to Grandi.
"This is a country where citizens have to seek refuge with the refugees," he said. Grandi expressed concern that many Palestinian children may not be able to go to school from September when the summer vacation ends.
The Palestinian refugees "are people in a precarious state. People are frustrated, are afraid, feel vulnerable because of this status of refugees. And this becomes even more serious when you are in a conflict like in Syria," Grandi said.
"What I would like the Japanese people to understand is how difficult as human beings this is. There is a lot of poverty, and in some places even hunger. We do our best but we need more help to address that," he said.
The Palestinian refugee population continues to increase by an average of 3 percent every year, but UNRWA is underfunded. Grandi said the agency, whose funds come from voluntary contributions from governments, has fallen $50 million short this year.
UNRWA has been taking austerity steps and is balancing its budget with the services it provides. But more financial support is necessary to ensure that the agency can keep operating, he said.
Over the past few years Japan on average has donated around $15 million to $20 million annually, making up about 1.5 to 2 percent of UNRWA's annual funding.
While acknowledging the difficult financial situation in Japan, especially in light of the reconstruction following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, Grandi said he hopes the country can provide additional support.
Having met lawmakers and government officials in Tokyo, Grandi said he "sensed there is support, and I hope that this will be translated into concrete figures."
Japanese aid is valuable in the Middle East because Tokyo, despite its strategic goals in the region of procuring oil, is regarded as a fairly neutral player, both in historical and political terms, he said.
"Japan's contribution is perceived by the Palestinians, the beneficiaries, as not carrying political baggage," Grandi said. "People accept it as a gesture of solidarity. Because of the nonpolitical character of this aid, it is well appreciated."
The Japanese government, along with the international community, supports the "two-state solution" where Israel and a future independent Palestinian state coexist in peace.
Grandi hinted that Japan should take advantage of its status as a partial and unbiased player and continue to back the peace process.
He worked for refugees in various countries and regions, including Afghanistan, Sudan and Democratic Republic of the Congo as an official of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees before joining UNRWA in 2005.
He was appointed commissioner general of UNRWA in 2010.
Unlike the UNHCR, which provides aid to refugees worldwide, UNRWA, which was established a year before UNHCR's launch in 1950, deals with Palestinian refugees stemming from the Arab-Israeli conflicts in 1948 and 1967.
Initially UNRWA started as a temporary special agency to provide relief, but due to the lack of progress in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, it became a provider of basic services to generations of Palestinian refugees.
UNHCR often works through NGOs and governments, while UNRWA directly supports the Palestinian refugees. UNHCR may intervene in discussions to find a solution to the conflicts, whereas UNRWA does not get involved in Middle East peace negotiations.
Although there are operational differences between how the two agencies work with refugees, Grandi said the fundamentals of the problems are similar. "What is important is a political solution to their plight."
But Grandi stressed that the human aspect, over the political, should always be kept in mind.
Last year, when news of the devastation caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake reached the Palestinian refugees, Grandi said he was surprised that many, including school-age children, asked UNRWA to deliver messages of support to the Japanese people.
He realized the Palestinians felt compassion for the people in the Tohoku region suffering pain and the anxiety of living away from their homes. "Human pain is similar even if the causes are different," Grandi said.
"This is a political crisis, but it has a very big human aspect that we should never, never forget," he said.