Former head of Palestinian relief agency asks Liberals to restore its funding

The head of the UN refugee agency came to Ottawa this week to talk to the government about Syrian refugees, but didn't ignore the state of his former organization.

OTTAWA — The head of the UN refugee agency came to Ottawa this week to talk to the government about Syrian refugees, but didn’t ignore the state of his former organization.

Filippo Grandi, who spent 10 years with the UN agency serving Palestinians, says he encouraged the Liberals to restore the group’s funding which was cut by the former Conservative government.

“We mentioned this, but it’s not my job anymore,” Grandi told The Canadian Press in an interview.

“I hope it will resume.”

Grandi took over leadership of the UN Relief and Works Agency in 2010, the same year the Conservatives announced they would no longer fund UNRWA’s core operations. The move came after contributions had been scaled back in previous years over allegations UNRWA was tied too closely to Hamas, which many countries, including Canada, consider a terrorist group.

The agency denies those allegations.

The Conservatives continued funding emergency programs, but that money later dried up as well. Some of the aid was redirected to the Palestinian Authority and the Conservatives did continue with other direct funding pledges to the authority.

But losing first the core funding to UNRWA’s budget and then program funding created a massive shortfall, as the agency was chronically underfunded, Grandi said.

“We had to scramble to find other contributions and that caused a lot of hardship and difficulty,” Grandi said.

The subject came up Monday during a meeting between Grandi and International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau.

She has said previously the government was looking at restoring some of the funds.

Last week, the UN was forced to walk back a statement that the money had been committed as part of a meeting between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in New York. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the statement was an early draft sent by mistake “that did not properly reflect” their discussion.

A spokesman for Bibeau said Monday no decision had been made.

“I know it is complex but I think it can be reconsidered,” Grandi said. “I encouraged the minister to visit some UNRWA schools.”

Grandi later told a news conference he thinks Canada can broadly play a leading role when it comes to encouraging other countries to step up their humanitarian aid contributions.

So far, the Liberals have pledged more than $100 million to the UN’s refugee agency directly in response to the Syrian crisis. Grandi said he obtained no new commitments for future years.

But he said Canada remains among the top donors worldwide and the challenge now is to broaden that pool. He said his agency is actively working to increase support from Gulf states, East Asia and Latin America, but each have their own challenges.

Primarily what he’d like to see is more countries moving towards the multi-year funding model that has traditionally been the way Canada has made its commitments.

“If humanitarian relief is to survive in this century, we really need more countries to step up to the plate,” he said.

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