“Unprecedented crisis for Palestinian refugee agency”: video interview with Chris Gunness of UNRWA

unrwa school

The UN agency responsible for the Palestinian refugees is facing a dramatic financial shortfall. Part of the shortfall is due to the fact that Canada eliminated its contributions in 2009. Without new funding, schools like this one, may not open in September. See my video interview with Chris Gunness, Director of Advocacy and strategic Communications

On August 4th, UN Secretary General, Ban KI-Moon made an urgent appeal to all UN members to help address an unprecedented funding shortfall faced by UNRWA, the UN Agency responsible for Palestinian refugees. Unless additional financing is forthcoming by the middle of August, he warned, the Agency’s schools and training centres – which account for 60% of the annual budget – will not be able to re-open. (See attached report and covering letters.)

Since 2009, Canada has made no contribution to the Agency’s General Fund.  The $28 million Canadian contribution in 2008 and 2009 represents well over a quarter of the currently projected deficit.  (In 2013, Canada terminated even the $15 million allocation for “emergency assistance”.)

In the current election campaign, only the NDP has come out in support of restoring full Canadian funding for UNRWA. So far the Liberals not have commented on this issue. Would a new government ensure that the services of UNRWA are not denied to some of the most disadvantaged communities in the Middle East in an environment where extremists are recruiting on the back of poverty and desperation? Stay tuned.

On August 11th, I was able to track down Chris Gunness, the official spokesman for UNRWA and asked him about the crisis, and about Canada’s history of involvement. Mr. Gunness joined the UN in 2006 after a 23 year career in the BBC as a reporter and anchor in TV and Radio. He worked for a year and a half in the UN political office in Jerusalem before transferring to his current post as Spokesperson and Director of Advocacy and Strategic Communications for UNRWA which provides human development and emergency services to up to 5 million Palestine refugees across the Middle East.

UNRWA’s financial crisis, and its implications for millions of Palestinian refugees has also attracted a considerable amount of attention from civil society. Professor Sara Roy a senior research scholar at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies wrote about the particular consequences for Palestinian refugees in Gaza. “The Gaza Strip’s last safety net is in danger,” she warned. “The UN’s refugee agency is one of the few forces standing between the people of Gaza and humanitarian catastrophe”.

In Canada, a recent article by Hugo de Grandpre, Ottawa correspondent for the Montreal-based La Presse daily, also covered the growing pressure on Canada to respond to the crisis.  So far, the Canadian government has not responded.

Among other initiatives Avaaz is circulating a petition aimed at the leaders of the G20 (which includes Canada) urging them to support UNRWA. 

Anyone interested can follow Chris Gunness on twitter at https://twitter.com/chrisgunness


  1. I attended a UNRWA school as a child, and now I am a Canadian citizen paying my taxes and advocating for human rights and equality for ALL in Palestine-Israel! I do not know who would I have become if I could not get that chance! It is outrageous to see the Conservative govnt of Canada de funding UNRWA even without a notice, as Chris explained! This should change. Thank you, Peter, for this remarkable interview! Thanks, Chris, for your work!

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