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Syrians counting on Australian aid


Two elderly and two young Syrian refugeesShayma, 20 years old, was waiting in the crowd to receive her kits, holding her baby boy in her arms. Her face showed the signs of worry and exhaustion. The little boy looked very thin and undernourished. She said, 'His name is Jean and he is seven months old. I know he seems very small considering his age. We are very poor. Since we arrived here, my husband hasn't been able to find any job. We have no income at all. We live exclusively on the humanitarian aid we received.' (Caritas Lebanon)

The ongoing conflict in Syria has led to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today.

The UNHCR released a statement announcing that the number of Syrian refugees has now exceeded 2 million. This is an increase of almost 1.8 million since the same time a year ago. Approximately 52 per cent are estimated to be children, 17 years old or younger. More than 100,000 people have died, and over 8.3 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. As many as 4.25 million Syrians may be internally displaced, and continue to struggle with frequent power cuts, lack of water supplies and shortages of basic commodities.

The need for a peaceful solution is great. In that part of the world, where the host populations in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are under increasing pressure, missile strikes will not bring about peace for the future.

My own children are aged three, two and four months. Shayma's experience described above touches a deep chord. In her shoes, what would I do? How would it be if no door opened for us after fleeing everything we once knew? We might feel blessed to have our lives. But could you feel hope for the future?

Caritas partners in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are delivering humanitarian support to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees. But it's the future facing Syria's children that impacts me the most. According to the UNHCR, women and children make up three quarters of the refugee population, and many children are making the journey alone. The vast majority of refugees are reliant on aid, most arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs.

The numbers alone are daunting enough. When you begin to think of each individual's experience of devastation, you can begin to imagine the collective weight of suffering. Sadly, most of the stories we will never know.

I was heartened when I read the opening remarks of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's Statement at the United Nations High Level Meeting on the Millennium Development Goals. Minister Bishop said:

As we approach 2015, it is right that we celebrate the enormous progress that has been made in poverty eradication globally since 2000. But there is much more to do to achieve the ultimate goal ... 'leave no-one behind'. We must ensure development is benefiting those most in need and most vulnerable.

I pondered whether Bishop's remarks could provide a lens of hope for interpreting the new Australian Government's announcements about the direction of our Foreign Aid program. At the very end of the election campaign, the Coalition announced plans to cut $4.5 billion in aid over the next four years. Last week, Prime Minister Abbott announced that AusAID would be 'integrated' back into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, with the aim to 'more closely align' aid with the Government's diplomatic arm and trade.

This will be a complex process and will take time. Reports and evaluations demonstrate that Australia's foreign aid program is successful and effective. As it drives development, our foreign aid program can also support foreign policy — it has done for decades. Yet it is vital to ensure the millions of people living in poverty, like Shayma and so many others in Syria, have a place at the table. We must not ignore the needs of those lying at our gates simply because their communities do not hold trade or economic interests for us.

As Bishop and the new Government map out AusAID's priorities I hope they give due consideration to the success of sustainable long-term development programs in fighting poverty and building peace and security. I also hope they remain realistic and honest in the need to address systemic and structural causes of poverty and hunger.

According to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference 2013/14 Social Justice Statement 'Lazarus at our gate', there are more than 870 million people, 12 per cent of the global population, who are undernourished. Of these, 852 million live in developing countries. In the developing world, 500 million smallholder and family farms produce 80 per cent of the food consumed. Yet increasingly these farmers find themselves forced to grow produce for export markets and are no longer producing enough food for their families and local consumption.

I hope that our successful aid program remains a priority for our Government. It will require the head and the heart, but as we forge an international development plan and partake in and lead the world in global fora, we need to ensure it is not just the world's major economies who enter our gates, but that we prioritise, hear and respond to the cries of the world's most vulnerable women, men and children who remain outside.

People like Shayma and her baby boy, and the millions of other Syrians who have fled conflict, persecution and war, desperately need to know that we will not leave them behind.

Mark Green headshotMark Green, is manager of people and mission and, currently, acting CEO at Caritas Australia. Sunday 29 September is Social Justice Sunday.

Pictured: Syrian refugees in Lebanon, where elderly members of families are eating less so children can eat better meails. Photo by Nick Harrop from Caritas partner CAFOD.

Topic tags: Mark Green, Syria, foreign aid, Julie Bishop, AusAid



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Existing comments

The statement "...smallholder and family farms ... increasingly ... find themselves forced to grow produce for export markets and are no longer producing enough food for their families and local consumption." screamed forth the news that nothing is new in this flawed world of human self-interest. It reminded me of the Great Potato Famine of the mid-1800's in Ireland, where 1.5 million people starved to death, a further estimated 3.5 million fled as refugees to the new worlds of America and Australia where they became part of the backbone of these societies. While all this was going on the political masters, the British government acting in the name of God and the Queen, took from the farms of Ireland for their own needs sufficient produce to feed the people of Ireland 11 times over. The anger that followed this in armed conflict still seeths below the surface and, even today, sporadically erupts in vengeance and hatred. Such violent conflict is likely continue in what is now the third world, unless the governments of these countries put their own greed aside and work for the betterment of all their people . However, history tells us over and over again that this will not happen.The poor and powerless will always be refugees while the political masters grow fat and rich. Let us hope that in the matter of refugee aid our country does not follow the lead of Queen Victoria and her ilk who in her great self-professed, delusional Christianity donated 5 British pounds for the relief of starvation in the Irish people while she grew even fatter on Irish food. Let us hope that we, like our country of the past, take in refugees and helps them become backbones of this country. In the modern world, however, that will not be easy.

john | 30 September 2013  

Congratulations on this article Mark. It is good to hear from you again especially in such articles.

Carole MDonald | 21 October 2013  

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