Melissa Parke MP – speech on the work of UNRWA

photo of Melissa Parke MP
August 22, 2012

Meanwhile, UNRWA continues as best it can with its empowering human development work in education, health, relief and social services, thus contributing to calm in the communities in which refugees live. I wholeheartedly support Australia’s principled commitment to this important work.

Full speech

Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (19:24): In May the Australian government announced funding over five years to support the work of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, in serving the health, education and social welfare needs of the Palestinian refugees. While in Canberra in May, after meeting with Foreign Minister Bob Carr, the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Filippo Grandi, appeared before the foreign affairs subcommittee and also attended a meeting of the UN Parliamentary Group. It is a pity that some of UNRWA’s perennial detractors in the parliament were not available to attend these meetings as it is possible that some of their incorrect notions about UNRWA could have been put to rest.

There have been a number of articles attacking UNRWA in the Australian newspaper in recent months, including by Asaf Romirowsky, Daniel Pipes and Greg Sheridan. Unsurprisingly, a letter I wrote to the Australian responding to the attacks was not published, despite the fact that I worked for UNRWA for 2½ years in Gaza from 2002 to 2004.

Firstly, I would like to address the specious argument that refugees who are descendants of the original refugees displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war are somehow ‘fake refugees’ and that Australia should not be funding assistance to them. It has long been accepted practice in UNHCR, the other UN refugee agency that receives Australian funds, to register descendants of refugees while their political plight remains unresolved. This is grounded in humanitarian principles and refugee practice which Australia has long supported. UNHCR, for example, recognises descendants of refugees as bona fide refugees in many protracted situations, such as the Burmese refugees in Thailand, the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, the Afghan refugees in Pakistan and the Somali population seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Moreover, the refugee question is a so-called ‘final status issue’, and it has long been the policy of the Australian government and, beyond that, the Middle East Quartet, that final status issues must be settled in negotiations between the parties.

Secondly, UNRWA has been accused of ‘perpetuating the refugee situation’. That is the fanciful notion that UNRWA itself and its approach to its work are per se the reason for the continuing existence of Palestinian refugees. Therefore, as the false argument goes, Palestinian refugees and the issues they represent would disappear if UNRWA were dissolved and the refugees became the responsibility of another agency, such as UNHCR. These notions have no foundation. They are contradicted by the established principles and practice of international law and by the realities of the Israel-Palestine conflict and its political context.

Like many other refugee populations, Palestinian refugees emerged from circumstances of armed conflict, forced displacement and dispossession of land. To the present day, and particularly in the occupied Palestinian territory, their state of exile is compounded by human rights violations, intra-Palestinian tensions and economic deprivation. Palestine refugees continue to be refugees because the issues which caused their exile remain outstanding. In reality, it is the failure of the parties to reach a negotiated solution to the underlying political issues that has led to the perpetuation of the refugee question, not UNRWA’s continued service provision, without which hundreds of thousands of the most disadvantaged people in the Middle East would be deprived of essential services—a situation that would hardly advance regional stability.

Only by addressing in a just and durable fashion the underlying causes of the conflict—and doing so in accordance with international law and the rights of refugees—can the refugee issue be laid to rest. This is the responsibility of the parties and international political actors. It is wishful, cynical thinking to suppose that Palestinian refugees can be made to go away by dispersing them around the globe or by dissolving the agency established to protect and assist them pending a just and lasting solution to their plight.

Thirdly, I would like to address the despicable claim that UNRWA is ‘notoriously corrupt’. This must come as a surprise to UNRWA’s many international donors—including its largest donor, the United States. UNRWA’s strict internal neutrality measures are monitored through internal and external oversight and auditing, in addition to regular donor reviews. As a former UNRWA lawyer intimately involved in responding to and participating in such audits, I can attest to how rigorous they are.

With regard to the claim that UNRWA incites terrorism in its textbooks, I note that a US Department of State review of the textbooks used by UNRWA found them to be free of incitement and that the curriculum was ‘peaceful’ and one in which ‘religious and political tolerance was emphasised’. I had the pleasure last year of visiting one of the UNRWA schools in Gaza that is mainstreaming human rights teaching throughout all school years. The students learn about tolerance, peaceful conflict resolution and the Holocaust, among other things.

Despite Australia’s generous funding support, UNRWA’s financial situation remains parlous. In the absence of a political settlement, the number of refugees coming to UNRWA for services continues to rise and the agency’s funding needs grow propor­tionately. The current instability in the Middle East, including in Syria, is only adding to the emergency UNRWA has to deal with. Meanwhile, UNRWA continues as best it can with its empowering human development work in education, health, relief and social services, thus contributing to calm in the communities in which refugees live. I wholeheartedly support Australia’s principled commitment to this important work. (Time expired)

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