Wednesday 1st of January 2014

As this year ends, the death due to starvation of 15 Palestinian refugees trapped with 20 000 other Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus due to the current conflict in Syria is in the news.  Before the war broke out in Syria in March 2011, Syria itself hosted thousands of refugees from neighbouring countries such as Palestine and Iraq.   According to UNHCR Syria had one of the largest urban refugee populations in the world and was one of the top 5 refugee hosting countries in the world.  According to the latest UNHCR statistics  Australia does not even make it in the top 10.

It is therefore cruel and unfair that Syria’s own nationals are now displaced by the current conflict.  The Syrian conflict has led to more than 5 million displaced people within Syria, and about 2.3 million displaced people outside Syria with more than 100,000 people killed in two and half years. Many people are still escaping from the conflict. The masses of people being forced to flee Syria daily to seek protection elsewhere is concerning.  According to UNHCR Women and children make up about three quarters (75%) of all Syrian refugees who have fled the country due to the conflict.  By the end of 2014, UNHCR estimates there will be more than 4 million Syrian refugees and there are signs that instability in the region is increasing, with very little chance that the conflict will abate soon.

Thus far no political leaders from any of the industrialised countries have come up with a globally responsible solution for displaced Syrian refugees. Instead, they have condemned oppression by the Syrian Government while being silent on the resettlement of thousands of displaced Syrian refugees in Syria’s neighbouring countries.  The US for instance has taken in just 90 Syrian refugees for resettlement since the outbreak of the civil war till September 2013 while at the same time reports have leaked out that the US government and it’s proxies have helped arm some of the militants in this conflict.

Despite not being full signatories to the UN refugee convention, countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq have taken over 2.1 million refugees so far.  Lebanon with a population of just over 4 million hosts about 1 million Syrian refugees. The last two weeks of August 2013 saw approximately 47,000 Syrian refugees enter Iraqi Kurdistan. Meanwhile OECD countries chose to condemn acts of violence and dictatorships as well as take to media outlets to misrepresent core issues of refugees rather than practically work for a humanitarian solution.

Recently UNHCR released a report that stated 17 countries have agreed to participate in the Syrian refugee resettlement program and capped the intake so far to about 10,000 Syrian refugees. This means approximately 600 refugees will be resettled per country. Given the current flow of refugees, it would take approximately 200 years to resettle all Syrian refugees. Under this program it is a fact that only grandchildren of the current Syrian refugees will resettle in these countries. There are also reports that those who were already registered in Damascus, Syria as refugees with UNHCR cannot get assistance from UNHCR in Malaysia until they register again.  Is this what we call a humanitarian approach by an organisation that seeks to support victims of persecution and trauma?

The current conflict in Syria will not be solved within a year, perhaps not in the next five or ten years. Syrians will remain in neighbouring countries during this time and be exposed to the psychological trauma of being torn from their homes and loved ones and minimal protection rights as non-citizens. This trauma and suffering will be an ongoing battle for Syrian refugees.

Australia is one of the countries that have agreed to be a part of the so called “resettlement program” for Syrian refugees and said they will be taking about 500 refugees during the year.  As the year has passed we have no confirmation as to whether this agreement has been fulfilled.

The Australian government has also contributed just $100 million to the Syrian crisis response since June 2011. This is supposed to help United Nations organisations deliver desperately needed basic services inside Syria. Five million dollars to the World Food Programme is being given to maintain emergency food supplies to three million people. Three million dollars to the World Health Organisation is provided to help address critical shortages in medical supplies.  Three million dollars to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is provided to assist supply safe drinking water as well as vaccination of 2.5 million children. One million dollars goes to the UN Population Fund to help fund reproductive health care and psycho-social support projects for over 1 million vulnerable women and children.

On the flipside of Australia’s “humanitarian” response, the previous Labor government and current Liberal/National coalition government has been pouring over a billion dollars into contracts with multi-million dollar private security companies like SERCO and G4S and “humanitarian” agencies like Save the Children and Salvation army to run detention centres that incarcerate over 6000 men women and children from conflict zones such as Syria who cross Australia’s borders to seek asylum. The UN reports that more than 100 international laws have been broken by Australia’s immigration detention system.  Australia has also provided millions of dollars to military/Security personnel of overseas governments such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka to stop and incarcerate refugees crossing borders to seek protection in Australia. With the introduction of the Pacific Solution Mark II by former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard used to deter people arriving by boat, Amnesty international estimates that the government will spend more than half a million dollars for each asylum seeker imprisoned in the pacific islands of Manus and Nauru in sub-human conditions. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd trumped Julia Gillard and all his predecessors in the refugee cruelty stakes by introducing the current policy of not only deporting all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Pacific island detention camps but also preventing any of them who is recognised as a refugee from settling in Australia altogether; again millions of dollars will be spent unchecked, in a corrupt, non-transparent deal with the Papua New Guinea government to accept these refugees from Australia for resettlement in their country.

Australia’s current Prime Minister, Tony Abbott and Minister for Immigration and Border protection, Scott Morrison now label asylum seekers as “illegals”. To date they are unable to specify which law in Australia asylum seekers are breaking.  Refugees do not need to have a licence to seek protection; displaced refugees will not leave the country unless it is a last resort. People flee out of desperation and to avoid getting killed; no one should stop people seeking protection in any part of the world regardless of whether they have paperwork with them or not. Refugees who are caught in unsafe transit countries will continue to move and seek refuge; 43 million displaced refugees worldwide prove this point.

One should therefore, be mindful of the fact that Syrian refugees are forced to take extraordinary risks to flee; by foot, air or boat to other countries to seek safety and a permanent refuge. Their plight must be respected and understood. They must be given permanent protection and their situation should not be politicised or taken advantage of by anyone. We all need to take responsibility for each other and support each other. It is time for these industrialised countries to be held accountable for the very same oppressive conditions that they accuse the Syrian regime of imposing on the victims of war.  While we increase international aid for Syria we must come up with a globally responsible long term solution that is equitable and fair and protects vulnerable communities. Rather than spending billions of dollars on building fences and walls to detain refugees onshore or offshore, the Australian government should be part of this global response by providing more resettlement places for refugees and treating refugees with respect and dignity.


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