UNHCR warns displacement of Palestinians would be 'devastating' for the future of peace

Filippo Grandi tells The National the world is facing ‘jigsaw of crises’

UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi has urged donors to maintain their support of UNRWA. Reuters
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Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has warned against the forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, at a time of increased fears of an Israeli push on Rafah. He also called for the implementation of a ceasefire in Gaza.

In an interview during the Munich Security Conference, Mr Grandi told The National that “to help the people of Gaza, there is only one way forward".

"We know the UN Secretary General [Antonio Guterres] has said it, everybody's now saying it: humanitarian ceasefire, liberation of hostages and access of aid," he added.

"All these three things are very urgent ... and that's the only way forward. I don't see any other any other way forward for helping the people."

He warned that without a ceasefire, there would be "more death, more suffering, more resentment building in the region, with incalculable consequences also for the future of the stability”.

The UNHCR is not responsible for the welfare of Palestinian refugees, the only grouping excluded from the body's mandate because of the specific nature of the displacement of Palestinians due to the Israeli occupation.

Mr Grandi urged donors not to abandon the UNRWA, the body charged with caring for generations of Palestinian refugees.

He led the UNRWA from 2010 until 2014 and before that was deputy commissioner general of the organisation.

While an investigation into Israeli accusations against UNRWA workers being affiliated with Hamas is under way, Mr Grandi said it was “an organisation with a very specific mandate over Palestinian refugees, but that means that it has a mandate over two-thirds of the Gaza population, and is the only vehicle to provide vital assistance”.

He explained that if the “UNRWA is not permitted to work, or is defunded, I can hardly see who can substitute [for it]”.

It has come under attack from the Israeli government, not only through its accusation that a minority of workers have links to Hamas, but also because it deems the organisation as responsible for perpetuating the Palestinian refugee issue.

"The things for which UNRWA is blamed, especially the perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee question, is a misplaced accusation ... any organisation dealing with that will find itself in the same situation," he said.

He called for the world to remember the Palestinian refugee question belongs to the political process.

Mr Grandi said the issue of refugees “is mixed with security borders, Jerusalem and all the other fundamentals of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. So this is where it needs to be resolved”.

"The current crisis is not making solutions easier. If it continues, they will become more difficult," he said.

He described the threat of Israeli forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza as being potentially “devastating for the future of peace", adding another layer of problems to be resolved.

However, Mr Grandi sounded a brief note of optimism.

”One can only hope, and I realise it's maybe a bit of a utopian hope, that this devastating crisis, in which so many people are losing their lives, can be at least the door towards which we go back to meaningful peace negotiations," he said.

Grandi urges power-sharing in Sudan

As the war in Gaza, and its expanding ramifications continue, Mr Grandi stressed the importance of working towards ending the war in Sudan, where there have been major levels of violence and displacement since last April.

He said: “The most important is that at least one of these peace tracks that have been initiated in the region and outside it goes forward, towards at least the ceasefire”, in the hope of a power-sharing agreement that “can allow people to breathe.”

Mr Grandi’s statement comes at a time when the two warring parties in Sudan have not been able to come to an agreement to end the conflict.

He was in Sudan last week and his concern was palpable. “I spent four or five days in Sudan just a few days ago … I was shocked."

Mr Grandi worked previously in Sudan and spent three years there.

“It is a country I know well," he said. "It breaks your heart to see how the backbone of Sudanese society, the middle class, this moderate, hardworking, frugal middle class that has kept the country together for decades through all the political turmoil is being devastated by the war."

About seven million Sudanese have been displaced by the fighting that broke out last April – 1.4 million of them have left the country.

"They are essentially an urban middle class. It is the cities that are being destroyed, it's Khartoum, it's Madani, it's the Darfur cities that are being destroyed," Mr Grandi said.

Watch: Munich Security Conference 2024: Managing global migrant and refugee flows

Mr Grandi sounded a warning about ignoring Sudan, saying “it is urgent ... what is the world going to do when it finally wakes up and finds this huge country in a strategic position, not almost existing any more?

"What will the world do when it realises that this belt of instability now goes from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, almost without interruption?"

He called on leaders around he world to act. “This is also the backyard of Europe. If you then continue, you have the Middle East and Yemen in flames. You have Ukraine – it's very, very worrying."

'Jigsaw of crises'

He voiced concern about “this jigsaw of crises” that has not yet been tackled, saying ”decision-makers are very selective in what they deal with”.

UNHCR estimates that by the middle of 2023, for the first time in recorded history, the number of people forcibly displaced exceeded 110 million, with more than 36.4 million refugees around the world. Those numbers will probably be revised in the wake of the Gaza war and continued conflict in Sudan.

Mr Grandi hosted the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva last December, where he said “there was in awareness that there needs to be unity at least around this global issue with so many human dimensions, the refugee phenomenon”.

He added that the forum “beyond my hopes, was a moment of unity. What is now important is to implement the hundreds and hundreds of pledges that states, civil society, private sector organisations made”.

More than 1,600 pledges were made at the global meeting.

If all these actors implement “a good portion of those pledges, we would have made extraordinary progress, beyond all the rhetoric that these problems cannot be solved”, Mr Grandi said.

Updated: February 20, 2024, 4:38 AM