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UNRWA head: ‘One cannot simply wish away 5m people’

Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) seen during his visit to Gaza on Janaury 22, 2018 [Middle East Monitor / Mohammad Asad]
Pierre Krahenbuhl, commissioner-general of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is seen during his visit to Gaza on 22 January, 2018 [Middle East Monitor/Mohammad Asad]

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees has spoken out against efforts underway to see the organisation dismantled, stating: “One cannot simply wish away five million people”.

Pierre Krahenbuhl, Commissioner General for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), made the remarks in an interview with Foreign Policy.

Krahenbuhl also spoke to the impact US funding cuts have already had on URNWA’s operations, noting that in the Gaza Strip, the agency “had to announce cuts to some of our emergency services like community mental health, job creation” and “there was even a risk for our food distribution”.

Read: The plan to end UNRWA will not take away Palestinians’ right of return

According to the Swiss diplomat, the protests in response to job cuts led to UNRWA losing control of its compound in Gaza for “about 20 days”.

Asked by Foreign Policy about the claim made by Israel and the Trump administration that “Palestinians are the only people in the world who are allowed to pass their refugee status down through generations,” Krahenbuhl said this was “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,” he said, before citing Afghanistan, Angola, Burma, Burundi and Sudan as cases of protracted refugee situations where “the children and grandchildren of the original refugee[s]” are also considered refugees.

“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,” he added.

Read: Politicising UNRWA

Pressed as to what life would be like for refugees were UNRWA to be dismantled – a key demand of many Israeli and US politicians – Krahenbuhl replied:

“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 five million people”.

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