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UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees

Volume 816: debated on Thursday 9 December 2021

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what the United Kingdom’s contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is in the current year and next year; and what steps they are taking to ensure that UNRWA does not run out of funds.

My Lords, the United Kingdom is a long-term supporter of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency—UNRWA. So far in 2021 we have provided £27.9 million to UNRWA, although final figures will be published in the annual statistics for international development report. This includes an additional £1 million that I can announce today for UNRWA’s flash appeal following the Gaza conflict, taking our total contribution to the appeal to £4.2 million. We are also working with UNRWA to improve its financial viability.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, perhaps more for its tone than its substance. Could he confirm that the figure he gave for 2020-21 contrasts with the figure of £70 million in 2018; that is, a cut of something in the region of 60%? Does he also agree that UNWRA’s work is more valuable and more vital in a period such as now when there are no talks going on about resolving the Israel/Palestine dispute? Do not the two things contrast rather sharply?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point about talks, I take encouragement that recently, for the first time in many years, President Herzog and President Abbas have spoken, which is a positive. On UNRWA, the noble Lord is correct. The budget has reduced, but nevertheless the funding I stated continues to provide important support, particularly in education for more than 500,000 children, half of whom are girls, within the Palestinian territories.

My Lords, I shall just pick up that last point about talks. Last month, at the UN International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, the UN Secretary-General remarked that it is 30 years since the historic Madrid peace conference. He also underlined the ongoing commitment of the UN to work with both sides and with the Middle East quartet. Can the Minister tell us a little more about what we are doing as a country to initiate, facilitate and support our allies in ensuring that talks commence?

My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, the US is taking a particular lead on these issues and positive initiatives have been undertaken by the new Administration in Washington, which we support. We work very closely with the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority on a wide range of initiatives underlining our continued strong support for a two-state solution. More recently, we have been encouraged by positive steps taken by the new Government of Israel, including engagement with Jordan, which will be a key partner in any future peace agreement. I agree with the noble Lord that this challenge—this issue, this dispute—has gone on for far too long and that we need a resolution.

I met the Commissioner-General of UNRWA on his recent visit to London and have visited two UNRWA facilities. Young people from the Shatila camp in Lebanon came to meet me because on the day that I was going to visit that camp there was a flash security alert about my visit. That shows the tense nature of these young people who continue to live in these camps. The 60% reduction of UK support is not only morally shameful given our historical obligations, but I saw schoolrooms with books, teaching staff, computers and other facilities funded by the UK. That 60% reduction will have a direct impact on those young people, removing life chances in a very vulnerable area. UNRWA has asked for an exceptional prioritisation mechanism from the UK FCDO. Will the Minister please consider that, because these cuts could be very dangerous?

My Lords, I have already acknowledged that there has been a reduction which reflects the reduction in the overall ODA spend. Notwithstanding that, on Gaza specifically the United Kingdom has sought to provide support and the £3.4 million has been enhanced with the additional £1 million that I have announced. Of course, I take note of the noble Lord’s insight from visiting camps and meeting people directly. I will certainly take back his suggestion to the FCDO.

My Lords, I refer the House to my interests in the register. Some noble Lords call for unwavering financial support for UNRWA by the British people, but what part of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency should be engaged in teaching hate and encouraging jihad, violence and martyrdom—paid for by the British people? I urge my noble friend the Minister to talk to his colleagues in Canada, Australia and the US about total restructuring and reform that offers relief and work, as opposed to incitement and hatred.

My Lords, my noble friend will be fully aware of my views on that. No British money should be spent on any textbook or support for any institution or organisation that suggests or inflicts that kind of extremist ideology on any community or any child anywhere in the world. I assure him that, in our support for UNRWA, we are vigilant on these issues. I am cognisant of reports that have been produced in this regard, and we have completed a full audit to ensure that the facilities we support are fully consistent with not just our values but those of the UN.

My Lords, the Minister has been in his post a good deal of time now and is a very effective Minister. How much longer must the people of the Occupied Territories suffer and be humiliated, in the way that they have for so many years, before the international community and the British Government in particular start taking some positive steps? How is it credible to continue to argue for a two-state solution when we recognise just one of the two states? Is it not high time that we at least recognised the state of Palestine?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks. I share the point that he raises: as I said in an earlier answer, this has gone on for far too long; from both an Israeli and a Palestinian perspective, this needs resolution. I have been to Israel and the Palestinian territories. I have seen for myself the impact the conflict has on both communities. It requires peace negotiations to start again. We are encouraged by recent steps that the US has taken. The position has not changed on recognition of a Palestinian state: we will do so at a time when it serves the peace process in the best way. At the same time, we continue to support and work with the Palestinian Authority. For example, it was invited to, and attended, COP 26 recently.

My Lords, the West has supported UNRWA financially for more than 70 years, contributing tens of billions of dollars towards not solving the refugee problem but perpetuating it. Is it not time that UNRWA’s functions were transferred to the United Nations refugee council and the Palestinian Authority for the proper treatment of refugees and their resettlement and advancement? UNRWA is a failure.

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises specific issues about UNRWA. As I said in my original Answer, the UK continues to support UNRWA but, as I have indicated, where concerns are raised about any UN agency it is right that the United Kingdom, as both a funder and a supporter of the multilateral system, ensures that this work is carried out effectively. I assure the noble Baroness that this is exactly what we do. As I reiterated earlier, UNRWA currently carries out some very valuable work, including on the education of young children.

My Lords, UNRWA was founded in 1948 to help 700,000 refugees but now provides aid for more than 5 million. Uniquely, UNRWA status—unlike that of any other refugees anywhere in the world—is passed down through the generations. Should we not encourage UNRWA to press Lebanon, Jordan and the other countries to give these refugees citizenship and full rights, instead of perpetuating the so-called right of return that prolongs the conflict and undermines the policy of a two-state solution?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right: UNRWA was set up under a unique mandate by the UN General Assembly to provide protection and core services to Palestinian refugees across the Middle East. We are clear that the final status of the Palestinian refugees must be agreed as part of the wider peace negotiations. Until that time, the UK remains firmly committed to supporting UNRWA and Palestinian refugees. I note his point about other countries, and we are supporting Palestinian refugees in those countries as well.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are persistent allegations of increased violence towards Palestinians by settlers illegally occupying lands on the West Bank? What representations have Her Majesty’s Government made to the Government of Israel on this matter?

My Lords, we consistently make representations on the issue of settler violence in the Palestinian territories. I assure the noble Lord that we work closely with Israel on security issues as well. For example, we very much encourage recent announcements from the new Israeli Government on the added support they are giving, in terms of both economic prosperity and security, for the Arab community in Israel. Israel is a key partner for the UK. That means that, as a friend and partner, where we have issues of concern we raise them directly.