The situation continues to be dire for Palestinians: 95% of Palestine refugees in Syria are dependent on humanitarian aid and 65% of young Gazans are unemployed. Pierre Krähenbühl, head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), discussed their plight with Parliament's foreign affairs and development committees on 13 June, calling on the international community to work towards a credible political solution for the problems of the Middle East.
We interviewed UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl following his meeting with MEPs.
What impact has the conflict in Syria had on Palestine refugees in the country?
Syria was the one place in the region where Palestine refugees were welcomed. They had access to employment and were largely self-sufficient. Now 95% of Palestine refugees in Syria depend on UNRWA for everything: 60% are displaced and about 120,000 have left the country. These people have been defined by the forced displacements of 1948, further displacement in 1967 and now another generation is facing the trauma of lost homes, livelihoods and family members.
We will shortly mark two years since the start of the last Gaza conflict. Can you describe the current situation there?
Some areas have been rebuilt, others not at all. But what is impossible to map out are the psychological scars: the result of 50 years of occupation and 10 years of blockade. In 2000 UNRWA was providing food assistance to 80,000 Gazans, that figure is now 900,000. This is a highly educated community that was previously largely self-sufficient and is now dependent on food aid. As a form of collective punishment, the blockade is illegal under international law.
65% of young people in the Gaza Strip are unemployed and 90% of UNRWA schoolchildren have never left the area in their lives. Their neighbourhoods are half destroyed, half rebuilt; and they have seen three consecutive wars in their young lives. With no real prospect of employment and no freedom of movement, suicide rates are also on the rise. I cannot see how any of these parameters are reconcilable with anybody's security concerns however legitimate or otherwise.
Is the hopelessness and despair of Palestinians in danger of being exploited by extremists?
When you're faced with that type of horizon, there is a temptation. Yet despite all of their doubts and scepticism, Palestinians are not receptive to extremism in large numbers at this point and continue to hope that the international community will mobilise.
In Europe we have to understand that when we fail to invest in conflict resolution, we end up with protracted humanitarian crises causing people to leave the region. So recreating the political horizon is the first step, while investing in education and human development is the other provider of hope. And with over 50% of UNRWA's core budget coming from the EU and its member states, the financial and diplomatic support of the EU is very important.
UNRWA is the UN agency charged with providing assistance and protection for some five million registered Palestine refugees. Find out more about UNRWA's partnership with the EU here.