Posts Tagged ‘Canada’

Canada and UNRWA

Posted: June 19, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Syria, UNRWA


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.

Ooops! Canada, Israel, and UNRWA

Posted: July 6, 2011 by Rex Brynen in UNRWA

It had been widely reported that Canada’s decision in late 2009 to end support for UNRWA’s General Fund was driven by some “pro-Israel” lobby groups who had embraced the rather shoddy and ill-informed criticism circulating about the Agency. B’nai Brith Canada, for example, had long accused UNRWA of links to terrorism and of creating an “environment of hate and incitement.” The Canada-Israel Committee praised the funding cut when it was made, and noted that it had “long advocated for such a move by the government.”

Now, however, some investigative reporting by Embassy Magazine (“Israel asked Canada to reverse decision on funding for UN Palestinian refugee agency”) has found that not only was the Canadian move criticized by the Arab States, UN, EU, and US, but that even Israel was disappointed and asked Canada to resume its UNRWA General Fund contributions.

For more than a year, many have suspected that the Harper government’s decision to stop providing direct budgetary support to the UN agency responsible for helping Palestinian refugees in the Middle East was made at the behest of Israel.

However, newly released CIDA documents appear to turn that notion on its head as they show Israel was one of a number of countries actively lobbying Canada to reverse its decision last year to focus its funding on emergency food aid.

“The announcement of this targeted funding has provoked a number of reactions from countries in the region,” reads a document dated Aug. 24, 2010, “and in discussions with the US, Israel and the UN Secretary General, Canada has been asked to resume funding the General Fund.”

B’Nai Brith Canada, in a valiant effort to rescue itself from the debacle, is arguing that the episode “is a wonderful example of how Canada determines its own foreign policy, irrespective of what others may want it to do.” However, the comedy-of-errors is rather more a case of certain lobby groups being seduced by the ill-informed rhetoric of the most extreme elements of their own constituency, to the point of accidentally advocating policies at odds with those of the very Israel that they claim to support. (One former Israeli official, himself a veteran of past refugee negotiations, once berated me for using the term “pro-Israeli lobby” on the grounds that many of the policies advocated or accepted by such groups weren’t at all in Israel’s long-term interests. The Canada/UNRWA case seems to rather prove his point.) The Canadian government ought to have known better too—but apparently did not.

I doubt that these revelations will make much difference in Canada, where the government is unlikely to admit its mistake and change course. However it certainly will seriously undermine the “defund UNRWA” campaign in the US and elsewhere.