By Ghadah Alrasheed 

Credit: AFP

In the first federal leaders’ debate, three party leaders talked through some of the issues that matter most to Canadians including the economy, health care, and environment. But when the debate shifted to the UNRWA, it seemed strange that an organization unlikely familiar to many Canadians took centre. In the debate, Andrew Scheer promised to pull Canada’s funding from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians (UNRWA): “I will pull the funding from UNRWA and ensure Canadian Taxpayers’ dollars are not going to advocate terrorist activities”. The statement prompted responses from the other two leaders, mostly from Elizabeth May, who intervened, “They run schools Andrew. I have been to the schools.”

As of 31 December 2018, Canada has officially pledged to donate 26,000,000 in USD to the organization (falling behind other donors such as the EU and Germany, which pledged 178,989,326 and 177,439,447 USD respectively). Canada, as the other G7 nations, has a quite long history of supporting the agency, which was brought to a halt during the recent Conservative government. The government has also increased its funds to the agency from last year by around $7,000,000 as a response to the United States withdrawing its $300,000,000 support to the UNRWA.

Contrary to the image of Canada being a blind supporter of the UNRWA, Canada has clearly insisted that UNRWA maintains a good governance and expressed its concerns over UNRWA’s mismanagement if there were allegations of any. This happened earlier this year when there were some allegations of ethical abuses in the agency. Canada expressed its concerns even before any of the allegations were proven true or the UN’s investigation was concluded. In addition, most of the allegations relate to the personal relationships of Pierre Krachenbuhl and another top executive at the agency. So, it would seem quite unreasonable to cut the funding to millions of vulnerable of people due to the actions of a number of executives at the agency.

When the UNRWA was founded by the UN in 1949, it was aimed to provide aid and basic services such as education, health care, relief and social services to Palestinian refugees following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. At that time, it was responsible for the wellbeing of 750,000 Palestinian refugees. The number of the refugees and their descendants registered with UNRWA now is around 5,000,000. The agency has also expanded its work to include development projects related to women’s programs and community rehabilitation and youth activities centres.

This is not to say that the system has created ideal situations for the Palestinian refugees. Palestinian refugees are defined by the agency as “persons whose normal residence was Palestine during the period between 1 June 1946 and 15 May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict” as well as their direct descendants through the male line. So, the system has excluded anyone who has not lived in Palestine during these two years. It has also excluded the children and husbands of Palestinian women who marry non-refugees as they cannot transmit the refugee status to their descendants. The system has been far from perfect from the beginning, leaving out a large group of Palestinian refugees in limbo with not much prospect of change.

The UNRWA is not exempt from criticism. It is an internationally funded system within complex layers of historical, political and geopolitical conditions. But looking at how the Canadian political leaders discussing the UNRWA is an opportunity to highlight and reaffirm the role and accountability of politicians in political and media climates characterized by misinformation and polarization. Let us look back at the comments made during the debate and ask questions that demand frameworks and proposals going beyond slogans to ensure enlightened and sustainable policies. For example:

Is there really evidence that links the UNRWA with terrorist activities?

What is the source of the evidence?

If there is such proof, does this require cutting the funds? What will happen to the five million refugees registered with agency?

How will this affect the stability of the region?

What are the alternatives to UNRWA? And what are the credibility and effective of alternative solutions if they exist?

I will not go into the political agendas of the political leaders but instead, I am trying to emphasize and highlight the importance of having informed and informative debates concerning displaced people and refugees away from campaign strategists or marketing slogans. It is not hard to see that an idea or a system unfamiliar to many in the public such as UNRWA is picked up easily as a part of a political campaign. This style of debate, which relies on snippets and slogans, will only continue to compromise the future of millions of people if the public stop demanding the candidates to develop evidence-based policy proposals and provide in-depth responses to global issues.