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Monday, 30 November 2015
Page: 14180


Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (11:06): I second the motion. I am grateful to the member for Calwell for moving this important motion acknowledging that yesterday, 29 November, was the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Never has it been more important to show solidarity with a people whose right to their own state—as established in international law—is being rendered increasingly impossible to achieve, and whose deteriorating plight has been somewhat masked by the conflagration in Syria. This applies especially to the situation of Palestinian refugees.

In discussions around the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced to leave their homes, located in what is now Israel, during the 1948 and 1967 conflicts is a topic that is rarely talked about. There are some 1.2 million Palestinian refugees living in Gaza, 700,000 in the West Bank, 600,000 in Syria, two million in Jordan and 300,000 in Lebanon, who are registered with UNRWA as refugees. I note that it has long been accepted practice in both UNRWA and UNHCR to register descendants of refugees while their political plight remains unresolved; as also occurs, for example, with the Burmese refugees in Thailand, and the Afghan refugees in Pakistan. The right of the Palestine refugees to return home is enshrined in international law: in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and through UN General Assembly resolution 194 and Security Council resolution 237, which have been consistently reaffirmed by UN member states. UNRWA was set up in 1949 to provide relief, health, education and social services to Palestinian refugees until a political settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict was achieved. UNRWA was intended to be a temporary agency but, unfortunately—as everyone is only too well aware—there has never been a political settlement. UNRWA thus continues to have responsibility for the Palestine refugees while UNHCR—which was established after UNRWA, in 1951—has responsibility for the world's other refugees.

I had the privilege of working as a lawyer for UNRWA from 2002 to 2004, based at that time in Gaza but with coverage of the refugees in all of UNRWA's areas of operation including the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Since I have left UNRWA, the situation of the Palestinians, which was bleak even then during the second intifada, has only deteriorated—particularly for the Palestinians in Gaza who have suffered major incidents of bombardment and invasion, and nine years of an economic blockade by Israel, and for those in Syria who have endured almost five years of conflict. These emergency situations, which have created extreme hardships for the Palestine refugees, have placed enormous burdens on UNRWA's finances, which are entirely dependent on donor funding from governments such as Australia. UNRWA has been forced to cut back its services, like education for half a million children in 700 schools. This is a worrying development in a region becoming increasingly unstable and radicalised.

I travelled to Damascus in April 2011, at the very beginning of the Syrian conflict. With UNRWA staff, I visited a school and various community development programs in the Yarmouk refugee camp, and was delighted to receive a warm welcome from the Palestinian children and youth I met. They were intelligent, bright and exceedingly curious about Australia's democratic system, the work of the parliament, and kangaroos. The small children sang and danced.

It has been devastating to reflect on what many of these children and their families have endured these past years as Yarmouk became besieged and people denied food and medical treatment. Yarmouk has been one of the worst affected places during the war with people trying to survive by eating grass or rocks, just to have something in their stomachs.

As the former Commissioner General of UNRWA, Filippo Grandi, who is now the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said last year:

There is a ripple effect of anxiety and fear emanating from the Yarmouk experience.

   …    …

Yarmouk has come to represent all places where—for Palestinians and especially for refugees—control over one ' s life is an illusion, where the safety of decades can disappear overnight, where land is confiscated, homes are demolished, rights are denied, travel is restricted, jobs are lost, resentments and prejudices prevail ... It was a beacon of resilience. Unless we act quickly, it risks becoming a symbol of dispossession and of a history of repeated dispossessions.

The motion by the member for Calwell thus draws attention to the fact that, within the hierarchy of misfortune that applies to the people in Syria and more broadly in the region, there is a group that is more unfortunate than most, whose suffering at the hands of the Assad regime, IS and others has been multiplied by the fact that those Palestine refugees who have managed to leave Syria, have been refused entry to Jordan and Turkey, and have encountered only further hardship in Lebanon. As the motion notes, as refugees registered with UNRWA and not UNHCR, the Palestine refugees are not being considered as part of Australia's intake of 12,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict.

This week, the UN parliamentary group is pleased to host a meeting with the new Commissioner General of UNRWA, Pierre Krahenbuhl, who is in Canberra. I hope the commissioner general's visit will lead to an increased appreciation of the plight of the Palestine refugees and the vitally important work UNRWA has done to assist them for the past 67 years, and that it will continue to do until conditions markedly improve. Australia has an important role to play, financially and diplomatically in supporting UNRWA's work and global efforts to achieve political settlements, in both the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Syrian conflict. We can also assist some of the most vulnerable people affected by these conflicts by taking them in as refugees.