THE refugee crisis that landed on Europe’s doorstep and so forcefully garnered the word’s attention with that heart-wrenching photo has taken a back seat to recent dramatics in Canberra. But Australia’s response to the crisis in Syria is the Turnbull Government’s maiden test of foreign policy.
The first strikes by Australian fighter planes against Daesh were carried out last week, only hours before Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister.
Military historians will judge whether it was a wise strategy to commit Australian Air Force jets to Syria. As a humanitarian agency with a century-long history of helping children impacted by war, our experience tells us it won’t help solve the conflict, which began long before most people had ever heard of Islamic State.
But Australia has started the raids and as they continue, it must uphold its obligation to protect children and other civilians.
This year alone, nine schools supported by Save the Children in Syria have been hit by air strikes. Last year, a Save the Children-supported school in Syria was impacted by air strikes 21 times. Barrel bombs dropped from aircraft have landed in playgrounds and classrooms, putting children in the path of lethal shrapnel and exploding ordnance. They have forced entire schools to shut down.
Australia must ensure the weapons it drops don’t inadvertently add to that suffering.
But regardless of how many bombs Australia drops, this crisis can only be solved by a political solution. And the people of Syria are crying out for one.
Now the Turnbull Government must prioritise working with other members of the international community to broker peace in Syria. It’s the only long-term solution that will see civilians protected and the momentum of extremist groups halted. Until then, we must embrace humanity rather than our military muscle.
The Abbott government’s pledge to resettle 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees was a generous downpayment of Australian compassion, as was its pledge to give $44 million in humanitarian funding to support those affected by the Syria and Iraq crises.
But we can and must do more. There is no end in sight to the Syrian conflict, so Australia must increase its ongoing annual intake of refugees to 30,000 and not just for Syrians and Iraqis but refugees from all countries.
Globally, more than 60 million people have been forced from their homes because of conflict. It is the greatest movement of humanity since World War II and Australia must play a greater role in permanently resettling those who are most vulnerable.
Likewise, Australia’s funding pledge to the Syrian refugee crisis sounds generous, and it is. But in order for Australia to contribute its fair share to the UN’s Syria appeal, still only a third funded, we need to give about $100 million more in 2015.
The benefits of playing our part on aid are twofold: not only does it save lives by providing things like food, education and clean drinking water; it helps improve regional stability, which serves Australia’s national interest.
Public pressure amplified by a compassionate and persuasive Australian media played a commendable role galvanising support for Syrian refugees. We must not let this outpouring of Australian generosity falter.
In 4½ years of Syrian bloodshed, more than 250,000 people have been killed and entire villages have been wiped out. Almost a quarter of the country’s schools have been destroyed or used as shelters. A staggering 12 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance right now, almost half of them children.
In the case of Lebanon, where I live, a quarter of the country’s current population are Syrian refugees — equivalent to Australia taking in an extra eight million people, or the combined populations of Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Lebanon hosts more refugees per capita than any other country. In the 18 months I have lived there, I see more and more children begging on the street or going without adequate food, medical assistance, education, or even a roof over their heads.
I’ve also seen the heartbreaking loss of hope for too many Syrians, most of whom want nothing more than to return to their homes and to live without fear or destitution.
Meanwhile, Syria, once a drawcard for travellers in the Middle East with its ancient sites and winding bazaars, is barely a skerrick of its former self.
If the world fails to capitalise on support for refugees and make serious commitments to find lasting peace, an entire generation of Syrian children will also be lost to horror, violence, and despair.
The Turnbull Government has an important role and must go beyond the humanitarian commitments to Syria made by the Abbott government in its final weeks. There is no end in sight to this conflict, not yet, and so Australia must be more committed and generous than ever before. We can and we must do more.
SARAH IRELAND, FROM BRISBANE, IS SAVE THE CHILDREN’S HUMANITARIAN ADVISER BASED IN BEIRUT
Source: Herald Sun