Middle East Peace, Security and Development and UNRWA

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 15th June 2022.

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Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee 4:00 pm, 15th June 2022

I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention, which pre-empts what I am about to say. I completely agree that a stable funding base is needed, and let us hope that he has also predicted what the Minister will say, because he is absolutely right: this requires ministerial leadership. I know the Minister well, and I know that if she is able to give that, then she will, so let us keep that hope for the next 20 minutes.

There is no doubt that the plight of Palestinian refugees is both tragic and a recurring obstacle in the search for a two-state solution. Established in 1949, UNRWA has an important role to play in providing much needed education, healthcare and social services for the Palestinian people. Its original mandate—to provide humanitarian and development goals, pending a just and lasting solution—clearly still remains unfulfilled. In order to meet its goals and support two states for two people, which is the UK’s and the international community’s long-standing position, UNRWA must receive the funds it needs.

UNRWA is unique, in that it effectively offers state-like services in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, but relies on voluntary contributions, including donations by the UK, to educate hundreds of thousands of children, support the poorest, and take care of the sick and injured. Throughout 2021, despite the challenges presented by covid, UNRWA managed to maintain quality primary healthcare services for 1.9 million Palestinian refugees, which included over 7 million in-person and telemedicine consultations, as well as further care at UNRWA-contracted hospitals. UNRWA provides essential healthcare, particularly for the 87,000 pregnant women relying on antenatal care, which is critical for the safe delivery of newborn babies and the health of their mothers. UNRWA delivers its services at the maximum of its available budget, but because of understaffing, doctors can spend only three minutes with each patient, and after two years of covid, health services are severely strained.

In 2021, UNRWA provided education for over half a million children, nearly 400,000 people benefitted from social safety net assistance, including cash and food, and 8,000 young people accessed technical and vocational education and training. On his visit to the UK, Mr Lazzarini explained to me how he believes his organisation is providing hope in a region beleaguered by conflict. What he told me about the work of UNRWA was sometimes harrowing, but he also shared many inspiring examples, such as Loay Elbasyouni, who attended UNRWA schools and was part of the master team that developed the Mars rover, Perseverance.

Following years of cuts to its funding, the financial crisis faced by UNRWA means not only that it runs the risk of not being able to pay salaries, but that its installations, car fleet and computers are in such a state of disarray that its delivery of services is put at risk and the integrity of its staffing threatened. That is despite reforms promoted by Governments, including the UK Government, in exchange for financial support that has made UNRWA more efficient.

Since 2018, the UK’s support for UNRWA has decreased by nearly 60% from approximately £70.3 million to £28.6 million. In the last year alone, UK-funded support for UNRWA’s core budget has been cut in half, from approximately £42.5 million in 2020 to £20.8 million in 2021, while the UK’s funding for UNRWA’s emergency humanitarian work in Syria was cut from £7 million in 2020 to zero in 2021. The UK has yet to make any contribution to UNRWA for 2022.