FOREIGN Minister Bob Carr’s announcement that Australia will boost aid to a controversial United Nations organisation for Palestinian refugees has raised the ire of Labor Party colleague and chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Michael Danby.
“I don’t support it. Aid could certainly be more appropriately targeted,” the Melbourne Ports MP told The AJN after Carr’s office announced the $90 million worth of funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
In an opinion piece in this week’s AJN, Danby listed UNRWA’s flaws and said the UN should consider its future.
Danby slammed UNRWA for its unique ballooning definition of Palestinian refugees, which includes not only those who lived in Palestine in 1946-48 and lost homes and livelihoods in the 1948 war, but their descendants, noting Palestinian supporters use these figures to pressure Israel.
He said the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN’s major refugee body, uses a far narrower, conventional definition of refugees as living outside their country and having a well-founded fear of persecution.
Danby also compared UNRWA’s efficiencies un-favourably with those of UNHCR. UNHCR, with an annual budget of $US3.6 billion, uses its 7600 staff to aid some 33.9 million refugees in more than 125 countries. By contrast, UNRWA, with an annual budget of $1.2 billion, uses a staff of some 29,600 to aid five million purported Palestinian refugees.
“It is time that the international community looked more closely at UNRWA and considered whether it should be restructured or dismantled and whether the substantial funds that go to it could be better spent,” stated Danby.
Community leaders concurred with Danby’s assessment.
Zionist Federation of Australia president Philip Chester said that while increasing aid to Palestinian refugees is proper, there are issues of how accountable UNRWA is. He said the UN body used some resources to pursue a political agenda. “The money is given to UNRWA, not to the Palestinian Authority or Palestinian groups on the ground.”
He also said he was concerned at UNRWA’s claim of 4.9 million Palestinian refugees in its operational area. “We think that’s a highly inflated figure. The Foreign Minister needs to engage in some dialogue with the Israeli government on this to try and hear a different perspective on how many refugees there are.”
Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council executive director Dr Colin Rubenstein said that while humanitarian aid was “laudable and appropriate”, there should be strict oversight of UNRWA funding.
“Australia should be conditioning any new aid to UNRWA on reforms aimed at improving both aid delivery to those genuinely in need, and at curbing longstanding elements of the organisation which are serving to place roadblocks in the path of a just and negotiated settlement,” he said.
Executive Council of Australian Jewry executive director Peter Wertheim said that while UNRWA does important humanitarian work, “we believe that it is wrong in principle for there to be one UN agency specifically for assisting Palestinian refugees, and another that is responsible for all other refugees.”
Carr’s funding approval for UNRWA keeps him in the firing line, after accusations last month that AusAID, the Australian government’s foreign-aid arm, has been funding a subsidiary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.