Seeking Refuge: An Interview with UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl

Seeking Refuge: An Interview with UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl

. 9 min read

Interview by Heide Rogers. Originally published in the HIR Winter 2019 Issue.

Pierre Krähenbühl has been the Commissioner-General of the United Nationals and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees in the Near East since March 2014. Native to Switzerland, Krähenbühl studied international relations and political science at the University of Geneva and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. He went on to serve at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1991 and was appointed Director of Operations in 2002. In that position, he oversaw the ICRC’s response to numerous violent conflicts, working in the field, in countries such as Sudan, Libya and Somalia as well as various Latin American nations. Krähenbühl held this position until he became Commissioner-General of UNRWA in 2014.

What made you decide to switch positions?

When you’ve worked for 22 years for an organization like the ICRC, especially during my third term as Director of Operations, you reflect [on] if you want to continue at the same organization. The interest in UNRWA was in part due to likeness in the ICRC’s nature of work, which includes dealing with conflict environments, refugee communities and victims of violence. But, there are also concrete differences that sparked my change, a desire to see the world in a different context outside of the red cross environment.

What is your and UNRWA’s role in the Middle East conflict?

I had not worked directly in the Middle East before UNRWA. At the ICRC I was mainly occupied with work in other regions, but the Israel conflict was definitely something I was still involved in, especially as ICRC Director of Operations. The Syrian Civil War began during my time with the ICRC. We saw a big change in the region which sparked a different way of seeing the (Israeli?) conflict.

Now, it is something that is predominant in my work, especially as there are 5 million Palestinian refugees in the region that UNRWA was designed to serve. The mandate that was given to UNRWA from the General Assembly of the United Nations prompted by the creation of 750,000 Palestinian refugees that were forced to flee following the creation of the state of Israel. For all those people who had to abandon their homes, the UN General Assembly decided that the most important thing was to resolve the problem politically. But, we must also help the Palestinians who had to flee. UNRWA has a strong focus on emergency relief because the displacement of the Palestinians only lasts a few months or years and then a solution would be found - either they could return to their home or find solutions elsewhere. But, UNRWA does not mediate; that is not our role. UNRWA has a strictly speaking humanitarian role.

When one thinks of humanitarian organization one often thinks of medical and food aids. That is also what we do, but our core work is in human development. For example, our education system is extremely unique. You cannot find another one UN or other humanitarian organization that runs an entire education system. In the United States, it would be the third largest school system of New York and Los Angeles. We run 700 schools in the Middle East with an education staff of 22,000 that are UNRWA employees for currently 525,000 boys and girls aged six to 16. And, that is a core element for opportunities, hope, and the preservation and development of skills and capabilities that are massive contributions to human development in the Middle East. And, that is where we have this double identity: a provider for emergency aid and also clearly a state-like service provider of education, health care, and relief of social services.

What are the Palestinian refugee camps like? Do they differ greatly from “normal” cities in Palestine and the rest of the Middle East? Does UNRWA feel responsible for the situation in the camps?

First of all it varies from one area to another. If you take Syria before the war, for example, Palestinian refugees lived in neighborhoods that were for a large part comparable to other neighborhoods where Syrians lived. They were just separate neighborhood. They had their own identity because there was a certain space assigned for them. And, so, it really varies from one term to the other. In general terms, though, the biggest difference that people should have in mind when thinking about Palestinian refugees camps is that they are not at all like the “typical refugee camp” that first come to mind, such as tent camps that one sees in many crisis environments in the world. This is because Palestinian refugees have been refugees in a community for almost 70 years, and since then, original tent camps have turned into real shelters.

And, so, our focus in many of these areas are camp improvement initiatives to better the conditions of the Palestinians living in these camps. We have initiatives that look at sanitation conditions, the repair of shelters, etc. This is a considerable part of our work. When you have conflict like Gaza in 2014 or in Syria currently, there is far more extensive reconstruction that is necessary, and so a lot of work and effort goes into this.

Does Israel facilitate your work in the West Bank or Gaza? Are settlers an obstacle?

The relationship with Israel is both a challenging and important one. It is challenging because UNRWA was mandated to serve one community, and that is the Palestinian refugee community. So, inevitably there will be moments of differences of opinion with Israel regarding the condition and situation of refugees and sometimes more fundamental issues, such as the definition of a refugee. That is part of our daily life. But, in a certain sense, it is also inevitable that there will be differences of opinion. I’m a big believer in communication and so I look for dialogue with the level of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs—the armed forces and we do raise with Israel a number of issues related. For example, in the way in which the security forces behave and operate for example in the west bank we have regular incursions by Israeli Defense Forces into camp environments with consequences for refugees and other civilians. So, we document those and intervene. That is part of our protection advocacy work and a natural part of UNRWA’s role.

Has this worked?

It is the experience of many humanitarian organizations in conflict zones is. When you intervene with authorities that are parties in a conflict the ability to influence a change in behavior. First of all, it takes a lot of time and can be more or less successful. So, like everywhere, one has successes and issues that are not resolved. And, inevitably many of the fundamental issues related to the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—specifically the blockades in Gaza—have not been solved. That is not just UNRWA’s resposnibilty, but also that of the wider international community. Of course, UNRWA is not the only actor to play a role in this, but we take it up because we think it is a very serious part of our responsibility to intervene in specific issues that we observe and document the behavior of Israeli security forces.

Are there areas of cooperation?

Yes, there definitely are. For example, due to our access to Gaza, we regularly liaison and coordinate imported materials for construction and other humanitarian necessities into Gaza. And so, we may not agree on everything, but in general terms, we have a sound operational dialogue with Israeli security forces on those matters. This is part of the daily experience. There are areas where we disagree, but there is dialogue and coordination, which has proven at times to be very important in the delivery of our work.

In light of the conflict, fundamentally, the most important issue is for the international community and relevant parties to recreate a real political horizon. This is currently lacking. But, that, indeed, is not the role of UNRWA. It is not the role given to us, so I do not have influence on that. However, what I always emphasize is that UNRWA is at the frontline to observe the human costs of the unresolved political issues. This is a very serious matter. I often encounter a lot of skepticism in the world about the prospect of resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestine politically because people think they have tried everything. I don't think that's a sufficient statement in it of itself. It is absolutely essential to recreate a horizon. Think of every young person in Palestine, the refugee youth. Every person below the age of 25 was born after the Oslo Peace Agreement. These people who have grown up hearing the message of the international community, which said if you embrace moderation and believe in the political processes and negotiations, a solution will be brought. And, these young people have seen no solution as a result of embracing moderation, politics, and negotiation. This leaves a lot of instability because this is hardly a good message. I meet a lot of these young people because they are students at our schools. And, frankly they want to be citizens of the world and have a future like each and every one of us that is based on respect, rights, and recognition. One should be investing a lot more than we are currently seeing in political terms. But, in the meantime, UNRWA will be continuing working on its mandate to provide the best possible support to this refugee community.

What are your thoughts on the right of return? Do you think there is a glimpse of this possibility? What do you think the future could bring?

Well, I think what is very important is that a solution, when it is finally negotiated and agreed upon, will have to include an element of choice for the refugees. That is the key element. In the past, this has been a part of the discussions, and I think it is very important that it become the case in the future. Which of these options people would prefer, whether it be returning, settling in an independent state of Palestine, settling in the countries they have now lived in for decades, or being resettled into third countries, is not for UNRWA to determine. But, I just observe that I think it is important for people to be given a choice at a given moment and that the clear message from the Secretary General of the United Nations that the two-state solution is where Israel and Palestine would live side by side in peace and mutual recognition is and remains the fundamental basis of a solution. As part of that, there has always been the question of how to address the state of refugees in the final stages of discussion. The one thing I can say from a purely human perspective is that one cannot just wish away an issue like the refugees. There are 5 million refugees registered with UNRWA. In any crisis, one cannot just wish away things. They have to be addressed as part of a structured and meaningful negotiation where parties agree to a way forward. This brings me back to my first point: the problem right now is the lack of horizon, a clearly identifiable political process that will give people the feeling that this issue will be taken care of. In the meantime, the minimum we need to ensure that there are at least the humanitarian and human development efforts that UNRWA brings, such as education for half a million students, health care for millions of Palestinian refugees, food assistance, and job opportunities that we create. Those have to be preserved until a solution is properly and durably found. That sadly at this point is not on the horizon and does not seem to be in the cards.

Do you have any last words?

Related to the fact of Palestinians being refugees for 50 to 60 years, this is something to really to reflect upon. Any individual, any citizen, can think back to what has happened in the history of their country since 1948. We can list the landmarks in the history of our respective countries. Since 1950, we would think about things happening in our own countries. Over that same period, Palestinian refugees have remained refugees. When thinking about this, the issue becomes clearer. The refugee issue should not remain anonymous because suffering and justice is deeply personal. One of our students in Gaza, a young girl, was 12 during the Gaza War, and her whole home was hit by an air strike. She woke up from coma to find out about the death of her brother and mother. She is one of the highest performing students at the school. The reason I describe this is because behind every one of these people there are individual lives that are either shattered, preserved, or protected. Opportunities are either created or destroyed by occupation or violence. We must think about this very deeply, about how individual destinies are either preserved or broken. It comes down to stories like these.

UNRWA and the United Nations are not just a bureaucracy, as  many people like to think. I have 240 colleagues in Aleppo to thank because they kept all UNRWA schools open throughout the seven years of war despite massive destruction. These people are the living embodiment of our values and principles. They are the opposite of bureaucracy. And that's what UNRWA stands for: preservation of hope. We want to say to the world: consider what it is like to be a refugee that nobody wants . At the same time, we want to say “thank you” to the world for all the commitments and support, but please let us not forget this community that plays such an important role. That's why funding UNRWA and supporting our work is not for the agency, but for the people.