Canada steps in with $50 million of extra funding to UNRWA

Refugee children headed for UNRWA schools on their first day of the school year in Gaza Strip despite the harsh economic conditions people in Gaza Strip are suffering from.

Canada has stepped in to help replace funding for UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, after President Trump eliminated the US contribution a few weeks ago.  Read more…

Hundreds of thousands of desperate Palestinian refugees depend on UNRWA for survival. It provides health clinics, schooling for 526,000 refugee children across Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and food assistance to 1.7 million people — a million of them in Gaza.

When Donald Trump announced on September 1st that the USA would stop funding UNRWA, it sent an immediate shock wave through the Palestinian community. The USA had been the agency’s largest single funder.

US and Israeli criticisms of  UNRWA have mostly focussed on what they claim is  “inefficiency”, “mismanagement’, and even fostering “antisemitism”. But it would appear that their real agenda is to undercut the Palestinian refugee demands for the right of return, which is guaranteed by a UN resolution. The existence of UNRWA continues to be an embarrassment to Israel, which denies any responsibility for the Palestinian refugee issue.

“Cutting UNRWA funding has been widely interpreted in both Israel and Palestine as a blunt move by the US to unilaterally sweep aside one of the main sticking points in peace negotiations – the right of return of Palestinians”, reported The Guardian.

UNRWA logo

UNRWA was created in 1949 as a temporary aid to Palestinian refugees

Since the US announcement, other countries, have stepped in. Last week the European Union announced an increase in its contribution, and there are rumours that both Russia and China are also considering requests. “The agency still has a funding gap of $217 million, and will ask donors for more and seek new sources of income”, said spokesperson Christopher Gunness.

In the past the USA has used its significant contribution to UNRWA to control its activities. However, if the USA ends its UNRWA contribution, it would seem inevitable that US leverage in the Israel/Palestine conflict, already under criticism, will further decrease.

Canada stands up

While the Trudeau government has in most ways been just as “pro-Israel” as the Harper government, that has not been the case everywhere. After becoming Prime Minister, and despite strong lobbying by pro-Israel lobby groups like CIJA,  in 2016 Trudeau restored Canadian funding to UNRWA which had been cut by Harper.

Again this time, Canada has stood its ground against the US, Israel and even in the face of more lobbying by pro-Israel forces in Canada.

Early last month, B’nai Brith Canada presented its anti-UNRWA case in a letter sent to Chrystia Freeland, Minister of Foreign Affairs. “Over many years, B’nai Brith has made clear to successive Canadian governments our serious concerns over the mandate and activities of UNRWA,” the letter read.

Nonetheless, the Liberal government stood firm. On October 12, Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced that Canada would contribute another $50 million dollars to partially make up the shortfall due to the US decision.

“This assistance demonstrates how Canada and UNRWA are working together to ensure respect for the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, operational independence and impartiality,” a statement from Global Affairs Canada said.

The funding will go to refugees in Gaza and the West Bank. Canada is earmarking $40-million toward the basic education, health and livelihood needs of millions of Palestinian refugees, especially women and children. Another $10-million is aimed at helping 460,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon.

UNRWA is not a solution

UNRWA has been an important and necessary institution for Muslim and Christian Palestinians who were made refugees in 1947/48 when Israel was created. However, even with a current annual budget of over $1.2 billion, UNRWA does not and cannot end the Palestinian refugee crisis. That can only come about by international recognition of the need for a just solution for the Palestinian refugees.


Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue, and Canada’s response to it. We invite brief comments (under 100 words) from readers.







  1. As a Palestinian-Canadian, I would like to thank our government for this support. It is important to keep children and young people in the refugee camps getting basic education and health care services. It is not just the right moral choice, but also it is a practical need for stability in the region.

    Given their situation, Palestinian refugees are the most interested people in peace and finding a solution. Give them a reasonable solution that would meet their basic human and national rights under international law, they would be happy to give up their UNRWA aid cards!

    In my opinion, this solution begins with finding the truth about what happened in 1947-48 and acknowledging whatever the Israeli responsibility was in creating this tragedy. The current Israeli state of denial is not a solution. This policy of denial is a form of violence against these refugees who live under very difficult conditions when Israel gets $10 millions every day from the US as a military aid:

    Thanks, Canada, for this moral, wise and courageous stand!

    I would like to thank also all Canadian human rights groups and CTIP blog for informing Canadians about this tragic situation.

  2. Complicated. Canada’s position towards Israel is hard to categorize. On the face of it, the Liberal government has just gone against the wishes of B’nai Brith, CIJA and the U.S. (though CIJA’s statement seems muted — that there should be better controls on how the money is spent). And it must be said that UNRWA is a double- or triple-edged sword. It helps people, undeniably. But does it prolong the Palestine refugee crisis and/or keep a lid on it? And the last thing the West wants is another major refugee crisis with people arriving on Greek and Italian shores. Or is Canada just trying to buy its way onto the UN Security Council, where it can further support Israel? Hard to figure.

    1. Arthur, Unlike refugees from Syria and other middle eastern hotspots, Palestinian refugees from Gaza and the West Bank are unlikely to “arrive on Greek and Italian shores”. They are effectively imprisoned by Israel and can only leave by renouncing their rights and having a place to go.

      Support for UNRWA is necessary but certainly insufficient. The West must also stop supporting Israel because that enables them to continue denying Palestinian rights.

      1. I agree with your last paragraph, certainly. But more than 3 million Palestinian refugees live in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. What would happen if they lost UNRWA support? Similarly for 2 million UNRAW refugees in Palestine. Without UNRWA support, might they become desperate enough to renounce their rights — for what they’re worth — and “arrive on Greek and Italian shores”?

        I’m suggesting the West has an interest in keeping Palestinian refugees where they are. What about Jordan, Syria and Lebanon? Do they have an interest in keeping Palestinian refugees where they are and what they are?

        I don’t know the the answers to these questions, but getting Israel to recognize its obligations under UNGA Resolution 194, Article 11, is only a partial solution, at best.

      2. Arthur,

        We agree that all Palestinian refugees have a right to the support that they receive from the rest of the world via the UNRWA. However, every one of those refugees is a human being with all of the rights to a full and satisfying voice that you and I have; nobody has a right to ask them to sacrifice their lives in order to remind Israel of its obligations. If some prefer to escape to where they an live a full life, nobody has a right to deny that to them. They are people – not pawns in some cruel game of chess.

      3. Arthur,

        You wrote, “I’m suggesting the West has an interest in keeping Palestinian refugees where they are. What about Jordan, Syria and Lebanon? Do they have an interest in keeping Palestinian refugees where they are and what they are?” My point is that “the West”, and the other countries you name are not entitled to ask them to stay. Whether or not they stay, should be up to them. Our interests do not matter. Their own wishes and goals are what matters.

      4. Oh, I see.

        I started out by asking why Canada gave more money to UNWRA and I suggested that it was in the interest of many countries to keep the Palestinian refugee situation stable, especially now.

        Ideally, “Whether or not they stay, should be up to them,” as you say. But that doesn’t mean the situation hasn’t been used for political advantage.

        I definitely agree that “if some prefer to escape to where they can live a full life, nobody has a right to deny that to them.”

  3. This is … well, I was going to say wonderful. It’s a relief. What would be wonderful would be our government taking steps to make Israel allow Palestinians to support themselves.

    1. What would be even of greater wonder would be for Canada to stand up and show the world it stands with the vast majority of humanity by demanding that Israel abide by the UN resolution that acknowledges the right of Return for Palestinians forced from their original homes in historic Palestine.

      How better to show a nation’s commitment to the United Nations and its efforts to reduce abuse wherever it may be found than to take such a principled stand?

  4. Thanks Peter.

    Good on Canada for jumping into some of the gap left by the USA defunding of UNRWA.

    Replied to Bnai Brith Canada’s very critical post of the funding on twitter, pointing out:

    that the UN support of Palestinian refugees since 1948 is the best course to peace;

    that UNRWA American deputy has denied most of the criticisms of UNRWA and specal treatment definition of Pal refugees while promising to do better in management in some cases;

    that a full comprehensive 2 state soln (w an E Jerusalem capitals) is the best and only way to do away with UNRWA and solve Pal refugee situation.;

    and that Israeli security and police establishment but not Netanyahu want UNRWA to contibute to provide assistance to Palestinian welfare for fear of a massive increase in resistance including violence.

    Hopefully CTIP can generate some support for Govt.

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