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Thursday, 18 August 2011
Page: 8626

Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (16:34): At a time when Australian politics and debate seem to be characterised by relentless negativity and a kind of formless discontent, perhaps we should spare a thought for people who are today enduring terrible suffering, starvation and death on a massive scale. Shocking images and stories are filtering out to the world regarding the plight of people in the Horn of Africa—stories of women struggling into the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya with acutely malnourished children, having spent four weeks walking from Somalia. Many of them have been forced to abandon children along the way who were too weak from starvation and thirst to walk. These children are left still alive and alone on the side of the road in order to ensure that their siblings have a hope of survival. This is a diabolical choice that no parent should have to make. Even then it is sometimes too late by the time what is left of the family makes it to the overcrowded camp.

The worst drought in 60 years has wiped out crops and livestock and is threatening the lives of more than 12 million people in parts of Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Uganda. The UN has declared famine in five of Somalia's southern regions, with 3.7 million people in crisis, while in neighbouring Ethiopia an estimated 4.5 million people are in need of food relief. The United Nations estimates that 2.23 million children in the region are suffering from acute malnutrition—that is more than the entire population of Western Australia—with 25 per cent of those in imminent danger of losing their lives. For this reason UNICEF has labelled the crisis 'the children's famine'.

During the past months it has been estimated that as many as 2,000 Somalis are arriving at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya each day. The largest such settlement in the world, Dadaab is designed to handle 90,000 people but currently holds nearer to 400,000 refugees. This overcrowding is creating problems of its own, with some refugees camping on the fringes, far from the life-saving services they need and exposed to exploitation. And these are only the people who have been counted. Relief agencies estimate that a further two million may remain out of reach of any assistance in conflict-ridden southern Somalia. Relief organisations are reaching only an estimated 20 per cent of people due to ongoing access restrictions and difficulties in scaling up emergency assistance programs, as well as funding gaps. More than 25 years ago the world came to the aid of people suffering a fate like this in Ethiopia. That famine threatened eight million people and prompted fundraising on an unprecedented scale. This current crisis promises to be larger in every respect, with the sad exception at this stage being the level of donations. The UN estimates that $2.48 billion will be required this year to contain this crisis. So far less than half that amount has been committed.

It would be easy to simply put this underwhelming response down to donor fatigue, a preoccupation with worldwide financial fragility or the climate of fear and introversion that has ensued in the decade since the 9-11 attacks. Certainly the usual supporters of causes like this are right to question when we might see an end to such avoidable misery and to wonder if, through their efforts, history will stop being repeated. The challenges in this part of Africa that comprise extreme poverty, food insecurity, political instability, civil war and the impact of more frequent droughts must be addressed and overcome for the medium and long term if we are to prevent future disasters such as the one unfolding before us now. But, in saying that, I am keenly aware that this is not a time for contemplation. As Woodrow Wilson said in his 1918 Armistice Day address to the US congress: 'Hunger does not breed reform; it breeds madness, and all the ugly distempers that make an ordered life impossible.'

Two weeks ago in New York I received a briefing from the head of UNICEF's Africa division, Louis-Georges Arsenault, who said that immediate action is needed to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe: the desperate hunger, ill health and potential starvation of millions of our fellow human beings, many of whom are children. I welcome the Australian government's timely boost of its emergency relief funding from $41.2 million to $83.2 million for emergency efforts across the Horn of Africa. We have doubled our commitment, and this is precisely the scale of increased assistance that is urgently required. I commend the Minister for Foreign Affairs for his willingness to act immediately and to fast-track Australian assistance for emergency relief through UN agencies as well as through NGOs, including Save the Children, World Vision, CARE, Caritas, Plan, Oxfam and RedR.

We need to continue with such efforts and go further or we risk this widespread food crisis and famine becoming one of the sorriest chapters in human history. Let us as a nation and as individuals remember the children in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and elsewhere, and retain a healthy sense of perspective on the things that matter.