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UN urges Ottawa to restore funding for Palestinian refugee program

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi says he hopes Canada will revive its funding for the organization.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is calling on the Liberal government to restore Canada's funding for the UN agency that works with Palestinian refugees, six years after the former Conservative government cut support over the organization's alleged ties to Hamas.

Filippo Grandi, who also served as the head of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) from 2010 to 2014, said he hopes Canada will revive its funding for the organization, which was set up in 1950 to help Palestinian refugees. The high commissioner's comments come as the government works to return to its role as an "honest broker" in the region.

"In the political desert of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in terms of solutions, you need at least to give some hope to the Palestinians, and much of that hope, I'm afraid, these days comes from the education programs of UNRWA, the health programs that are provided to the Palestinian refugees," Mr. Grandi said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "I hope that this government will consider becoming again the strong supporter that Canada used to be."

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Last month, The Globe reported that the Liberals are considering providing $15-million in annual funding to UNRWA. International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has indicated an openness to restoring the funding, but a spokesman for her office said the government has not made a decision yet.

The Conservatives cut all $30-million in annual funding to UNRWA in 2010 over its alleged links to Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by Canada. Mr. Grandi said he spoke to the Conservative government at the time about its decision and explained that its position was flawed. He said that while UNRWA interacts with Hamas to support Palestinian refugees, it does not support the organization.

"Hamas is a de facto authority in Gaza. … An organization like UNRWA, organizations that do humanitarian work, they need to interact with whoever is in control of that particular place. That has nothing to do with recognizing them politically."

UNRWA receives funding from dozens of donors including the United States, Britain, the European Union, Norway, Sweden and Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Grandi also applauded the Canadian government's response to the Syrian refugee crisis, citing the country's private refugee sponsorship program as a model for the world. He said he would like to see Canada help other countries build similar resettlement systems.

"This is really a Canadian model, the private sponsorship for resettlement. And we don't see it in other countries. But we want to promote it further," Mr. Grandi said.

The high commissioner said he will ask Immigration Minister John McCallum to speak about Canada's refugee resettlement systems at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, this May.

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Canada is one of only a few countries that have a private refugee sponsorship program. Of the more than 26,000 Syrian refugees that have arrived in Canada since Nov. 4, 2015, nearly 9,000 have been sponsored by private groups.

Mr. Grandi said traditional UNHCR donor countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States can also help the UN refugee agency diversify its donor base as it works to support an unprecedented 70 million refugees and stateless people globally.

"We want to really convince the world that refugee assistance cannot be the responsibility just of the countries that are next to the country at war, like Jordan and Syria, or the few, 10, 15 donors that give all the money. It is global."

Mr. Grandi, who was elected head of the UN refugee agency in January, met with government officials, including Ms. Bibeau and Mr. McCallum, Monday. Canada will commit more than $150-million to the UN refugee agency this year, compared with $83-million in 2015, according to Ms. Bibeau's office.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Michelle Zilio is a reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau. Previously, she was the associate producer of CTV’s Question Period and a political writer for Michelle has also worked as a parliamentary reporter for iPolitics, covering foreign affairs, defence and immigration, and as a city desk reporter at the Ottawa Citizen. More


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