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Monday, 24 February 2014
Page: 676

Ms PLIBERSEK (SydneyDeputy Leader of the Opposition) (11:42): I move:

That this House:

(1) notes the:

(a) ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon;

(b) former Labor Government's contribution of $100.8 million to humanitarian assistance; and

(c) Government's contribution of $12 million; and

(2) calls on the Government to immediately increase its humanitarian aid commitment to people affected by the Syrian conflict.

I believe the motion will be seconded by the member for Freemantle in her remarks.

I rise today to speak on this motion before the House on the situation in Syria. The situation in Syria, and in the countries that border it, is now reaching a crisis point. Indeed it is an extraordinary disaster.

The hope bound up in the Arab Spring has given way to civil war. The regime's brutal crackdown has been matched by terror from extremist organisations. The conflict has already killed well over 100,000 people, with more than 10,000 of those children. The United Nations says about half of Syria's population, more than nine million people, are in urgent need of assistance. The latest United Nations figures estimate that close to 2½ million Syrian refugees now registered in the region and about 6½ million are internally displaced. More than half of those who have fled Syria are children. To demonstrate the growing nature of the crisis, in February 2013 there were around 700,000 registered Syrian refugees, and that number has more than tripled in just twelve months. The situation inside Syria is so bad that it has become virtually impossible to deliver humanitarian supplies in many parts of Syria.

Last April, then Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, described the conflict in Syria as 'one of the world's great humanitarian crises'. With a situation so terrible, it is not hard to see why more than two million people have fled Syria and most of those have gone to neighbouring countries. There are 580,000 registered refugees in Jordan out of a total population of 6.3 million.

Like Jordan, Lebanon has also seen a massive influx of refugees. There were at last count around 900,000 registered refugees and probably around 100,000 unregistered. That comes on top of the 270,000 Palestinian refugees who have been living in Lebanon for many years now. You have got to put this in context by remembering that the population of Lebanon is about 4.4 million, so it is like a city the size of Sydney having a million people come needing accommodation, food, education, health services, work and so on.

Looking at Jordan, the member for Fremantle and I visited the Zaatari camp through which more than 370,000 people have moved since July 2012. There are about 85,000 people there now, making it the fourth largest city in Jordan. Jordan and the UNHCR have constructed a second camp at Azraq to house even more people expected to come across the border in coming months. As I said earlier, around half of those who fled and children and around half of those living in these camps in Jordan are under 18 years old. International organisations like UNICEF, UNHCR, Save the Children and World Vision are responding to this crisis and it was with UNICEF that the member for Fremantle and I visited refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon recently. We saw the terrific, amazing work that these international organisations are doing on the ground in these camps but, as one of the workers said to us in Lebanon, 'We are band-aids on a gushing, gaping wound and the tide keeps coming. We have to adopt an approach of providing meagre support to those in most extreme need.'

Both Jordan and Lebanon are countries that have had their own struggles to deal with. They are not wealthy countries. They are now facing this crisis because they have no other choice. People in a neighbouring country are fleeing disaster and the governments of Lebanon and Jordan have expressed the desire to do all that they can to help. But of course this influx is stretching the resources of these countries. Clean water in Zaatari is struggling to keep up with demand. In January there were over 130 water truck deliveries and over 2,400 latrines had been built by donors. The camp itself is located above a large freshwater aquifer and so there are serious concerns about what happens with sewage, brown water and grey water getting into the aquifer. It is important to understand that Jordan is the fourth most water poor nation in the world, so that issue of the supply of water and the quality of the water supply is a very important one. Sanitation is obviously a huge challenge with the number of people who are moving into the camps and the challenge of being prepared to deal with those people moving in so quickly. There is also a huge need for medical supplies in Syria but also in Jordan and Lebanon, including the need for a very large-scale immunisation program because of a recent outbreak of polio.

When you look at what is happening both in Syria and in Lebanon and Jordan you see the very substantial strain put on existing infrastructure in the neighbouring countries are trying their best to help Syria. The surge in population has put severe strain on schools, hospitals and public infrastructure of all types. In Lebanon the schools have gone to two shifts per day because a population of school-aged children of about 300,000 go to schools in Lebanon and the number of Syrian refugee children that need schooling is also 300,000, so they have basically got the number of kids in their public schools doubled virtually overnight. So UNICEF is helping by training extra teachers and supporting schools to go to two shifts a day. But of course the majority of education is taking place in very informal settings, including tents in camps.

Syrian refugees are also encountering some resentment because they are taking any work they can get to supplement the small amount of money they have brought with them or the small amount they can get from the United Nations. In fact, the International Labour Organization estimates there are 170,000 Syrian minors working every day in Lebanon, desperately trying to supplement family income.

Housing is one of the greatest needs. Most of the housing we saw was very basic. People were living either in tents or in very poor rental accommodation for very high prices. Syrians are taking whatever accommodation they can get and consequently pushing up the price of rental properties as well; in some places by up to 300 per cent in a matter of weeks.

One of the big concerns is not just the scale of the humanitarian need but also the increased volatility in a region that is already very volatile. It is so important that we as an international community support a return to peace as quickly as possible, so as to reduce that volatility.

Former foreign minister Bob Carr sought for Australia, as a member of the UN Security Council, to play a pivotal role in helping the people of Syria. In 2013, Minister Carr developed a transition plan. The first of the plan's four points was the protection of aid workers. It states:

Australia to seek formal agreement from the Syrian opposition to avoid targeting of health workers and allow universal access to hospitals in Syria

The plan called on opposition groups:

To ensure al-Qaida and other extremist groups are excluded from any future Syrian government.

On 22 February 2014 these sentiments were endorsed by the international community through the United Nations, with Australia playing a lead role. Along with Jordan and Luxembourg, Australia drafted a resolution at the UN Security Council that demanded:

… all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, promptly allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access for UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners, including across conflict lines and across borders.

The resolution was eventually approved unanimously. The council has also called for an immediate end to all violence and condemned the rise of al-Qaeda affiliated terror groups.

But leading the international community toward protecting humanitarian access is not enough. We must support Syria with the investment of extra resources. The $12 million is simply not enough. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mrs Griggs ): Is the motion seconded?

Ms Parke: I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.