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Monday, 24 February 2014
Page: 680


Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (12:02): I thank my colleague, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, for this important motion. In January this year, in my capacity as Deputy Chair of the Australian Parliamentary Association for UNICEF, I was fortunate to join the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Senator Hanson-Young, and UNICEF Australia CEO, Norman Gillespie, on a visit to Jordan and Lebanon to see the situation of the Syrian refugees and to better understand the challenges faced by those countries who are now hosting millions of refugees. I undertook this visit because it is one thing to receive briefings from aid organisations in relation to the world's largest humanitarian crisis, and it is quite another to witness the crisis for yourself.

An intellectual understanding can never be an adequate replacement for seeing the agonised and anxious faces of men, women and children, and the poverty of their existence; for hearing stories of the barbarities from which they have fled and the difficulties they face as refugees; for seeing people who have to burn plastic bags and styrofoam in their tents for warmth, in spite of the terrible health consequences; for hearing from poor Jordanians and Lebanese of growing tensions between refugees and host communities because of the competition for jobs and already scarce educational, health and basic resources; for listening to the Prime Minister of Lebanon tell you that his country, which has not yet recovered from its own civil war, urgently needs international assistance to cope with the 1.2 million refugees who are camping anywhere they can in the small country of 4 million people—a small country that, despite its sliding economy and precarious political insecurity environment, is nevertheless continuing to accept 3,000 to 4,000 new refugees every single day.

Jordan, with a population of some 6 million people, initially welcomed the Syrian refugees, with many Jordanians taking them into their homes. Unfortunately, as numbers have grown, tensions have increased within the community as Jordan's economy and social structures struggle to cope. There are 600,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, and hundreds of thousands more unregistered. Eighty-five per cent of the refugees are living in urban centres throughout Jordan and the remainder are based in the Zaatri refugee camp. Jordanian health and education services are now stretched to the limit. There is a significant rise in child labour, with many refugee children working in bakeries, fish markets, selling goods, or simply begging on the street.

Time does not permit me to go into more detail but I would simply say that, if the situation in Jordan is very troubling, the situation in Lebanon is extremely bleak. In Lebanon there are more than 900,000 registered refugees and a few hundred thousand who are not registered for fear of being identified and attacked. In a country of four million, there are more than a million refugees—a quarter of Lebanon's population again—and more per capita than anywhere else in the world. With no formal refugee camps in Lebanon, desperate people are spread throughout the country, living in apartments, in abandoned buildings and parking lots or in informal tented settlements, where both services and access to utilities are extremely poor. Of the approximately 400,000 school-age Syrian children in Lebanon, more than 300,000 are not going to school. At least a third of the refugees are receiving no support whatsoever. As the UNICEF deputy representative explained to us, 'We're just putting a bandaid on a gaping, gushing wound.'

I would like to express my gratitude and admiration for the UN agencies and the local and international NGOs operating in a difficult environment with limited resources. It is difficult to overstate the scale of the crisis that is occurring. Presently that immense humanitarian challenge is being met by the adjacent host countries and by UN and aid organisations. There is a real risk that the host countries will be unable to deal with the escalating burden of the Syria conflict in the absence of substantial assistance. Given the instability already in the region, further unrest and disintegration would constitute a significant threat to global peace and security.

The international community must do more to provide humanitarian assistance for this crisis—and that includes Australia's contribution. The recent pledge of $12 million by the Abbott government towards the regional humanitarian response is, frankly, an embarrassing and shamefully inadequate gesture considering the immensity of the crisis, our capacity to assist and our historic and present role and involvement with the United Nations. Imagine if six million people—a quarter of Australia's population again—turned up on our doorstep needing help. The incredible stoicism and humanitarian instinct that has seen Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey host millions of refugees without complaint should provide an example to us here. It puts into stark and sad contrast the hysteria aroused in Australia by a few thousand boat people.

The daily horror show that is Syria reminds us of the terrors that cause people to leave their homes and everything they know. With the recent events of Manus Island very much in mind, it is time for us to think again about what sort of nation we want to be. Are we still the tolerant, generous, welcoming nation that believes in a fair go for all? At heart I believe we are, but we need to start showing it again, both in terms of our humanitarian aid and in the way we treat the people who seek our help.