Regent’s welcomed Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner General of UNRWA, for a round table discussion

Organised by Professor Yossi Mekelberg, the discussion focused on the challenges and pressures on United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) operations in today’s world. 

Pierre, who worked as the director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross before joining the UNRWA, shared his experience of moving from an NGO to a UN agency.

There can be an instinctual worry about the greater bureaucracy when moving further away from the day-to-day realities of the communities you are supporting, according to Krähenbühl. However, this was not the case for him. 

UNRWA, described by Krähenbühl as ‘an organisation which lives on the very front line of humanitarian work’, offers a combination of services including medical work, food distributions, education and financial support. 

Education in particular is the one component unique to UNRWA. There are 530,000 boys and girls in 715 UNRWA schools across the Middle East, which goes far beyond day-to-day emergency response. 

‘When you invest in education, you don’t look at a person as a victim of a situation. You look at them as an individual with the future capacity for potential aspirations and everything that comes with that,’ said Krähenbühl. 

This however brings with it its own challenges. As well as a large number of overall staff, it requires individuals who are dedicated to the education of the students.

The existence of the UNRWA today is a reminder of two things. On one hand, it is the reminder of the very important things which can be achieved for long term refugee communities. And on the other, it is a reminder of the ‘catastrophic failure, in political terms, to bring about a solution’. 

‘There is nobody in the Palestine refugee community who would prefer another 10, 20, 30 or 40 years of assistance in exchange for the recognition of rights and the political horizon.’ 

Palestinian refugees are dealing with an almost complete absence of political horizon. Within their communities, the majority are below the age of 25, meaning they were born after the Oslo Accords. They have been taught that if you believe in the processes and you support negotiations, there will be a solution. Yet this has still not happened, highlighting the lack of an identifiable future. 

Krähenbühl discussed how this, alongside the decisions made last year around the move of the US Embassy and challenges to UNRWA funding, weighs heavily on the community. The message they received about their horizons and how they are considered as a component of a future solution or not, sent additional shockwaves and anxieties throughout the community. 

‘Not only have Palestinian refugees lived without political solutions but they have also got caught up in the conflict dynamics which affect the region,’ Krähenbühl commented. 

Using Gaza as an example, Krähenbühl emphasised the psychological and psychosocial trauma inflicted on the community. Over 27,000 people have been injured in demonstrations since last year – that is more people injured than in the 50-day war in 2015.

UNRWA, which only deals with primary healthcare at its health centres, had never previously treated patients with war injuries. However in recent years, the agency has had to treat thousands of people in its health centres to support the Gaza health system, which is on the brink of collapsing.
‘When you have a physical injury in a war zone you can show this, but the psychological trauma – every single family was affected.’

Krähenbühl spoke about 14 UNRWA students, aged between 11 and 16, who were shot and killed while demonstrating. He asked what this meant for their families and every classroom they did not return to. The psychological impact on the community and a trend like this when added to all the previous rounds of conflict cannot be in anybody’s interest in regional terms.

‘This is where the paradigm has to change, where there has to be a return to managing this situation from a political perspective, not from a militarised perspective.’

On a daily basis, UNRWA is confronted with the human consequences of the unresolved political situation. They need re-engagement, which is inclusive and does not further divide. One that looks for solutions and takes into account the aspirations and hopes of all of the communities within the region. 

‘It is clear we face a very unique set of challenges, particularly with the decision by the US administration to cut funding,’ said Krähenbühl.   

There are 280,000 boys and girls in schools in Gaza. In Jordan, there are 122,000 boys and girls in UNRWA schools. If the UNRWA education system comes to an end, where will they go? According to the Jordanian leadership, it would become a matter of national security and stability.

These things – education, healthcare, financial support – provide a sense of human dignity and regional stability. In the absence of this clarity, the path for the political future needs to be preserved. 

UNRWA has continued to work hard with many partners to preserve funding levels. This will continue to be a big effort this year, particularly with the financial and political challenges they face. 

To conclude the round table, questions and topics were discussed, ranging from how sustainable the funding is for UNRWA, to the refugee camps in Syria, the discrepancies in refugee numbers, misrepresentation, long-term integration, and diversification.

Thank you to Pierre Krähenbühl, Professor Yossi Mekelberg and all those who took part in the round table discussion.