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United Nations Relief and Works Agency

Volume 792: debated on Tuesday 4 September 2018

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of the United States concerning the funding of United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency.

The United States has consistently been UNRWA’s single largest donor. When the US announced its intention to withhold a planned disbursement to UNRWA in January, we were sympathetic to the need for a broader donor base for UNRWA, but made clear our concerns about the impact on UNRWA’s activities that any unexpected reductions or delays in predicted donor disbursements might have. That remains our position.

My Lords, UNRWA supports Palestinians, as the Minister will know, in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, as well as the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Gaza. Does he worry about the effect of this decision on these fragile states which already have a huge burden of refugees? Will the Government reassert the importance of UNRWA’s role, emphasising that refugee rights must be recognised and cannot simply be set aside by outside powers?

I am very happy to do that, and I am very happy to give this Government’s strong and unequivocal support to the work of UNRWA, which provides vital education, healthcare and other services to the refugees in that area. What is more, we have underscored that by the fact that when this crisis first arose, an emergency meeting took place, which the Minister, Alistair Burt, attended, and we brought forward £28.5 million in support planned for this year. Then in June, we announced a further £10 million for that cause. There is our government commitment, and at the same time, we have encouraged other countries to step up to the plate to ensure that this vital work continues.

Of course, the noble Lord is absolutely right. The United Kingdom’s response cannot be the only solution because the gap would be so huge. This is a brutal attack on the Palestinian people—brutal in terms of the basic services that are provided. Can the Minister give more detail on what we are doing with our EU partners to ensure that there is no diminution of the basic services, and that they are able to continue with the sort of action Germany has taken?

There are a number of things we can do. Certainly there has been ministerial contact with the US. There have been official-level contacts with our EU partners. The European Commission’s ECHO fund is the second largest donor, and of course we contribute significantly through that. There is a meeting next week in Brussels, and I am sure this will be on the agenda. It is a constant area of engagement and concern that other people should do more.

Perhaps the Minister noticed that during the Recess, the Foreign Secretary made a speech in Washington in which he was reported to say that we agree with the United States on 95% of foreign policy issues. Will he say on which side of 95 or five this particular decision falls?

Perhaps I can answer that with another illustration from the Recess, when Alistair Burt visited the Middle East, which he does frequently. He does an incredible job, and in the process of visiting Gaza, he announced that we would double the funding for economic development in Gaza and the West Bank. That underscores where our beliefs and principles lie.

My Lords, does not the Minister understand that this decision is both mean-spirited and tactically inept? It is mean-spirited because of the nature of the work done by UNRWA, and tactically inept because nothing is more likely to stiffen the resolve of the Palestinian people than such decisions.

It is worth putting it on the record that the US has distributed $60 million so far this year, which makes it the fifth largest donor this year and shows that the US currently pays 30% of the budget. Clearly, to be sustainable, there needs to be a much broader base. The USA contributes $364 million; the EU, through ECHO, $142 million; Germany $76 million; the UK $67 million; and Sweden $61 million, but there is a long tail of very small donors who I hope will be reflecting on their contributions to see what more can be done to ensure that this vital work continues.

My Lords, does this not emphasise the need to look at a final agreement between Palestinians and Israel? Would not the best thing be to use this as a way to get unconditional talks to occur between Israel and the Palestinian authorities?

My noble friend is absolutely right: that dialogue is critical and at the heart of this. One of the elements within the economic development package announced by Alistair Burt was a strong emphasis that progress on economic development and trade is in both their interests and has to be part of a wider peace agreement. We encourage and support those calls.

Does the Minister not agree that, while it may be essential that we try to keep the dialogue going, this ill-advised action by the United States makes that very much more difficult because it plays directly into the hands of the extremists? Is it not therefore essential to ensure, for political and security reasons, that the services of UNRWA—particularly the education of the young—continue without interruption? Should this House take the opportunity to put on record our admiration for the work of UNRWA in the most difficult circumstances?

I am happy to do as the noble Lord requests. UNRWA currently has a deficit of $270 million, which is unsustainable and needs to be sorted out. It relies too heavily on the United States and has too narrow a base of donors; the finances are not there. We understand that it has sufficient funding to keep the 711 schools open this month, but thereafter we are not sure. These are very serious times; as a result the Government are looking urgently at what more we can do in this area. Because of the vagaries of parliamentary timing between the House of Commons and here, I am not sure whether Minister Burt has yet made his announcement about what we might do, so I am slightly restricted in what I can say. However, we will today be announcing yet another increase in funding to meet the shortfall and ensure that people get the support and help that they need.

My Lords, it is estimated that the number of Palestinian refugees who are alive today who were displaced in 1948 is around 30,000. However, unique to any refugee situation in the world, the United Nations now defines their descendants as refugees, so the total is over 5 million. Does the Minister agree that a solution to this issue is made almost impossible when refugee status can be inherited in perpetuity? We should bring pressure on UNRWA to rehabilitate, rather than perpetuate.

That comes back to the point, raised by my noble friend Lord Pickles, about the importance of peace dialogue and reconciliation. The plight of Palestinian refugees has been experienced at first hand by many noble Lords, including me, and cannot be denied. In Syria they are doubly blighted by the situation there. This is a group of people in urgent need; this country has never walked by on the other side and will not do so in this case.

My Lords, the Minister said that Minister Burt—who I agree is an excellent Minister for the Middle East—is going to make a Statement on this issue later today. Will the Minister undertake to come back to this House, tomorrow or the day after, and repeat that Statement so that we can hear exactly what Minister Burt has said and have the opportunity to comment on it?

The noble Baroness draws me a little further. I will try to short-circuit that in terms of the procedures of the House. In Foreign Office Oral Questions, which are taking place at this moment in the other place, an announcement will be made of a sum of money additional to the £10 million announced in June and the £28.5 million which was brought forward. I have been asked to restrain myself from announcing the precise amount of this additional money until Minister Burt has done so. I am happy to find another mechanism for ensuring that this House is correctly informed of it.