Senator Nita Green – Estimates questions relating to Australia’s funding of UNRWA

June 3, 2024

Good morning. I just would like to know a little bit more about Australia’s support for UNRWA. Why does Australia provide funding to UNRWA and what does it do in Gaza specifically?

CHAIR: Senator Green.

Senator GREEN: I have some questions following on from questions I asked in last estimates about UNRWA funding. I just want to get an update on where that is at. But I want to go back a step to understand the steps that have been taken so far. Thank you.

Mr Brazier : Good morning, Senator.

Senator GREEN: Good morning. I just would like to know a little bit more about Australia’s support for UNRWA. Why does Australia provide funding to UNRWA and what does it do in Gaza specifically?

Mr Brazier : I can speak to the government’s response to the UNRWA flash appeal that was issued earlier and which the government paused funding for.

Senator GREEN: I have a series of questions about that. I just wanted to understand to begin with what their role is. It is helpful, I think, for committee members to understand before I ask the questions.

Mr Brazier : UNRWA is a specialised agency that was set up many decades ago. It is focused on supporting Palestinian refugees in the region—not only in the Palestinian territories but also, for example, southern Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere. The Australian government has supported UNRWA financially for a long time, several decades now.

Senator GREEN: In terms of that work that is occurring at the moment, the services and support on the ground, how does the work that UNRWA does, particularly in Gaza, compare to other humanitarian partners?

Ms Delaney : You’d be aware that, as a result of the conflict, almost 75 per cent of the population in Gaza has been displaced. UNRWA play an indispensable role in supporting the large numbers of internally displaced people that have often been displaced multiple times as a consequence of the conflict. Many of those IDPs are actually sheltering in UNRWA facilities. UNRWA’s distribution networks—the data that they hold in relation to those Palestinian refugees that require support but also the broader population—are critical. The data and warehousing facilities and their infrastructure and assets are really critical to current delivery in Gaza. We hear that from the OCHA, which is the organisation for the sort of coordination of humanitarian affairs under the UN, but also from a range of the other partners that we’ve been supporting in Gaza in response. The only other thing I would add is that, as we know, UNRWA has a large number of staff working in Gaza, at least 3,500 of those are currently working on the emergency response, and that is many more than other organisations.

Senator GREEN: Thank you. As you alluded to previously, there was a need to pause funding recently. When was that and why was that decision to pause taken?

Mr Brazier : The government paused funding for the flash appeal to UNRWA on, I think, 27 January. The reason for that was the very serious allegations made against a number of UNRWA employees.

Senator GREEN: Did other donors—other countries who donate—also pause their funding at the same time?

Mr Brazier : Yes, they did.

Ms Delaney : Yes. As we discussed at last estimates, around 14 countries, including Australia, paused their funding.

Senator GREEN: What has happened since then? Have we been able to unpause? I understand there was an investigation underway.

Mr Brazier : That’s right. The minister announced a decision to lift the temporary pause on funding to the flash appeal on 15 March. This decision followed steps taken by the United Nations Secretary-General, including delivery of the interim Office of Internal Oversight Services ongoing investigation report and the commencement of the independent Colonna review on neutrality, which was led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna. This also followed steps by UNRWA itself to strengthen the integrity of UNRWA’s operations, including termination of those staff that faced those allegations and a commitment to an action plan to strengthen internal controls. The government’s decision aligns with decisions by the European Union, Canada and Sweden to resume funding. In the case of the European Union, there were a range of actions committed to publicly by UNRWA, including an audit of the agency conducted by EU-appointed experts which provided donors with added assurance.

As has been alluded to by the minister and others here this morning, the decision recognised the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza. Around 1.7 million people are internally displaced, and many of these have been displaced on more than one occasion. At least 17,000 children are unaccompanied or separated from their families. One-point-one million people—around half the population—face severe food insecurity. Ten per cent of children under the age of two in Rafah are estimated to have acute malnutrition. More than 50,000 children across Gaza are malnourished. Of 36 hospitals, 20 are completely out of service. And 65 per cent of primary healthcare centres are not functioning. As Ms Delaney said, UNRWA continues to play an indispensable role in the provision of humanitarian assistance. This was confirmed in the independent review headed by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna. It confirmed that UNRWA’s distribution networks and the data that it holds remain absolutely indispensable to other organisations as well attempting to operate in Gaza.

Senator GREEN: Can I ask you another question, just before we get too far ahead? You referred to assurances. I did have a question about what assurances we sought to make sure our funding isn’t misused or misdirected. I imagine the donors sought similar assurances. You referred to the EU audit. Are there any additional assurances other than the ones you mentioned that we sought before we made the decision to ‘un-pause’ funding? I don’t know if that’s the correct terminology, but we’ll go with that.

Mr Brazier : Yes; I have a number of assurances which have been embedded in the agreement between the Australian government and UNRWA. These include earmarking Australian funds only for items with a very low risk of misuse and for tranche payments. We have also conducted due diligence assessment and embedded in the arrangement Australian government requirements.

Ms Delaney : I might just add to your question around working with others. We’ve certainly worked very closely with UNRWA and other donors to understand the actions that UNRWA had in place to ensure those core issues came to light as a result of the allegations, particularly around neutrality, and to better understand what those frameworks were. We worked with other donors to seek those assurances. We found as a result of that work that, as with other UN organisations, they had very strong frameworks in place but that, as Mr Brazier has pointed out, there were a number of reviews which also meant that there were opportunities to strengthen those internal controls. We certainly worked with UNRWA and other donors to support that work.

Senator GREEN: You mention the tranche funding. Has all the funding that the government announced been disbursed now? Where are we at with that?

Mr Brazier : Yes. The full $6 million has been disbursed.

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