Filippo Grandi, the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, stressed the need for humanitarian action to support Palestinian refugees affected by the conflict in Syria in a lecture at UC Berkeley School of Law on Monday.
About 5 million Palestinian refugees are scattered around the Middle East, and more than 500,000 had found a stable home in Syria until 2011, Grandi said. Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, about half of these refugees have been displaced or have fled.
Grandi called the “shocking devastation and violence in Syria the most recent chapter of displacement and hardship for the plight of Palestinian refugees that has been going on since the 1948 Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
UNRWA serves as a temporary support group by providing assistance, protection and advocacy for these refugees registered not only in Syria but also Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Since 2011, UNRWA has provided food, health care and education to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Grandi said. The majority of these refugees are in need of emergency assistance.
According to Grandi, the Palestinian refugees in Syria are particularly vulnerable and have an acute need for protection due to their limited flight options, whether inside or outside Syria. Almost all refugees are either in or near conflict areas, and finding refuge in neighboring states has become increasingly difficult, Grandi said.
Kate Jastram, faculty director and lecturer in residence at the law school’s Miller Institute for Global Challenges and Law, said the institute asked Grandi to speak in an effort to raise awareness of “one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.”
Jastram added that she hopes that Grandi’s presentation moved students beyond awareness and that they would begin to lobby the U.S. government to make sure that the world community does all it can to assist Palestinian refugees from Syria.
UNRWA is funded almost entirely by contributions from international governments. According to Grandi, the United States is one of UNRWA’s main government partners and with the European Commission contributed 47.7 percent of the agency’s overall funding in 2012.
Rachel Draznin-Nagy, a Jewish student in her first year at Berkeley Law, said she appreciated that although Grandi recognized the United States as a primary supporter of UNRWA, he acknowledged the importance of the roles of many other nations, such as Syria, Iran and Russia, in finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It’s not the kind of conflict where you’ll have hot war for a few years and a victor will emerge,” Draznin-Nagy said. “In this case, Grandi said that neither side is strong enough nor weak enough to lose, and that definitely has to do with the international powers involved.”
While Grandi’s lecture focused on the conflict as an issue that involves multiple international powers, he also spoke to the significance of the issue for Americans, especially students.
“It’s necessary for students to understand how important humanitarian work can be, not just for the people who are being helped but also for the maintenance of stability and calm in a situation that is so volatile and tense while politicians discuss solutions,” Grandi said.