At a time when many Palestinian refugees are facing increasing growing humanitarian crisis—most severely in Syria, but also in Lebanon and Gaza too—Canada’s lack of support for UNRWA is increasingly problematic. In an excellent op ed in the Toronto Star yesterday, Humera Jabir outlines a powerful argument why the Harper government should renew Canadian financial support for the Agency’s efforts:
Canada must renew support for Palestinian refugees
If the Harper government wants to be taken seriously as a foreign policy leader, it cannot continue to ignore the Palestinian refugee crisis that is shaping Middle East politics.
18 June 2014
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the Middle East in January he signalled Canada’s interest in showing greater leadership in the region. But if the Harper government wants to be taken seriously as a foreign policy leader, it cannot continue to ignore the Palestinian refugee crisis that is shaping the region’s politics.
Today, numbering in the millions and spread across the Middle East, Palestinian refugees, who fled what is now Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and ensuing conflicts, are central to Middle East politics and the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The worsening humanitarian conditions they face, now exacerbated by the conflict in Syria, further endanger the region’s stability.
And yet Canada, once a lead donor to Palestinian refugees, has turned its back on the population — a decision at odds with Canada’s foreign policy ostensibly concerned with the region’s security.
In 2007, Canada gave $32.4 million to the United Nations Relief and Work Agency(UNRWA), the organization mandated by the international community since 1950 to work for Palestinian refugees. The money was to help fund health care and education programs, as well as emergency food and job assistance to refugees most in need. This dropped to $20.5 million in 2009 and $15 million in 2012. Canada gave nothing in 2013, and there is no sign it will donate this year.
This amounts to an abdication of the very leadership role Harper claimed to want for Canada.
The flow of Palestinian refugees across borders has long been a source of tension in a region of messy sectarian divides, limited resources and sporadic violence. Today, more than 60 per cent of Palestinian refugees in Syria are displaced. Thousands have fled to Lebanon and Jordan, neighbouring countries already hosting sizeable Palestinian refugee populations and reluctant to accept more. Palestinian refugees from Syria have been blocked at borders or forcibly returned to war-ravaged Syria.
Moreover, Palestinian refugees who escape to Lebanon join a community that is already marginalized, deprived of political and economic rights and trapped in refugee camps the International Crisis Group describes as “a time bomb.” Without increased international support for the great numbers of Palestinian refugees arriving in Lebanon today, existing conditions will only worsen.
The decision to withdraw support to Palestinian refugees is also at odds with Canada’s international aid objectives, food security in particular. The violence in Syria has spared none, but with fewer options and resources Palestinian refugees are especially vulnerable.
In February, alarming photos of Palestinian refugees facing starvation in Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus made headlines. After a seven-month siege by Syrian forces, thousands of Palestinian refugees crowded the camp’s streets to collect food aid. There were reports of some eating leaves and animal feed to survive, leading the UN to call Yarmouk a crisis “unprecedented in living memory.”
Canada has pledged to aid Syrian refugees through other international partners. But by not funding UNRWA it is decidedly ignoring the needs of the Palestinian refugee population in Syria and discriminating between Syrian and Palestinian victims who suffer the same violence and upheaval.
It was widely reported that Canada’s 2009 decision to defund UNRWA was due to allegations that donor funds were being redirected to terrorist groups. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) itself disproved this, with a report finding “minimal” risk of funds being redirected and UNRWA to be strong in its financial management. CIDA documents from 2010 showed that even the United States and Israel lobbied Canada to renew its funding to Palestinian refugees.
Britain, the European Union and the U.S., recognizing the critical importance of stabilizing the stateless Palestinian population, continue to donate to UNRWA and at higher levels to fill mounting shortfalls. Canada is the black sheep. Its decision to withdraw support was noticed internationally, and according to some commentators, a factor in why Canada lost its 2010 bid for a Security Council seat.
This year, UNRWA faces a shortfall of $22 million in emergency aid to Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, threatening the provision of food aid to a population where 57 per cent are food insecure by 2012 figures. Cuts in food distribution, layoffs and service reductions by UNRWA in Gaza have already led to waves of protests by refugees brought to their knees by the Israeli blockade imposed since 2007.
At a time of turmoil and greater desperation, ignoring the Palestinian refugee crisis is a fatal flaw in Canada’s Middle East policy. If Canada wants to be taken seriously as a leader, it must renew its support to the millions of Palestinian refugees whose plight will shape the region’s future.
Humera Jabir is a law student at McGill University in Montreal.