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Opinion: Refugee Crisis - compassion without action is not enough

by Peter Walton

Tuesday September 15, 2015

Peter Walton, Head of International Programs, Australian Red Cross

When it comes to Syria, the compassion of Australians has been fractured for four years. Our collective heart has been struggling. As with much of the world, we have been completely inadequate in terms of the overall support provided. Bravo Australia for suddenly reviving. But why has it taken so long? Why has it taken a cold and brutal slap in the face with the image of a refugee child, bereft of life on a beach in Turkey to wake us up?  

Firstly, we must remember that Australia has a proud history as one of the most generous and compassionate nations on earth.  When natural disasters strike, from tsunami to bushfires, cyclones, floods and earthquakes, Australians donate so quickly that online donation gateways crash. But why is it that Australians donate more in one day after a natural disaster than in many years of crisis in Syria?  

The answer must start with the fact that the crisis in Syria is overwhelmingly complex. Have Australians felt that the situation is just too hopeless? Of course, Governments need much more commitment to resolving the conflict, but whilst this occurs we cannot ignore the day to day impact of one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of our time.  

The human face of the Syria crisis has been largely out of sight and out of mind. The global heart skipped a beat in shock when a truck was discovered on an Austrian highway packed with decomposing bodies of 71 Syrian children, women and men. Our hearts raced as the tragic photo of the lifeless three-year-old, Aylan Kurdi, on the Turkish beach coincided with the greatest movement of people in Europe since World War Two.  

It has been wonderful to see so many Europeans throw their arms open with, in recent times, unprecedented compassion. Leading the charge have been the people of Germany, who are lining the streets to welcome at least 800,000 refugees this year.  

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have been risking the perilous journey by sea to a safer future in Europe this year. More than 2,600 have died trying. Striking a chord, Somali-British poet Warsan Shire wrote of refugees: "You have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land." In Australia, at times, we seem to focus more attention on the means of transportation than we do on the real reasons why people risk their lives in pursuit of a safer life.  

Contemporary Australia is built on compassion. Close to 200,000 people, mainly refugees were welcomed here in the five years after World War Two. A further two million arrived by boat in the next 20 years. But it was another war and a history defining photo that imprinted itself on our minds helping to further define Australia's humanitarian spirit.  

The human face in the picture was nine-year-old Kim Phuc, running in a street after an aerial napalm attack in the war in Vietnam. It helped catalyse our compassion on the horrors of a major crisis on our doorstep.  

Following the war's end in 1975, Australians opened their arms to the human tide of refugees arriving by boat on our shores. More than 125,000 Vietnamese people would call a compassionate Australia home. It changed the face of our nation.  

In the past week, there has been a fresh tide of compassion from Australians of all walks of life. Shortly we will welcome 12,000 Syrian refugees in the 'lucky country'. This may be a significant increase, but let's put it in perspective.  

Lebanon - a country with a population of just 4.5 million - is hosting over 1.1 million Syrian refugees. Turkey has 1.9 million Syrians fleeing this gruesome war.  Refugees are fleeing to Europe because life has become intolerable in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Most refugees live outside the camps, where life is even tougher, with no guarantees of food, water or a place to sleep.  

Syrians want to live in Syria. Primarily, this is a crisis taking place in Syria and the region. We must direct our compassion to help Syrians live sustainably, so they can see a future. Millions of children need education now. Millions need blankets and adequate shelter to live comfortably through the coming winters. Millions need basic health and medical care. We must look beyond the few hundred thousand who are reaching Europe and redouble our efforts in the Middle East.

Last week's contribution of $44 million by Australia must be applauded. The world must build on this latest wave of compassion. Yet the UN is $2 billion short of the $2.9 billion it needs. International Red Cross is tens of millions of dollars under its target. The World Food Programme recently had to cut one-third of Syrian refugees from its food voucher program.  

Over 16 million Syrians need urgent humanitarian assistance. Let's pause to imagine the scale. It's entire cities on the move. It's equivalent to everyone we know, in all our capital cities on the move at once. It's our neighbours, friends and family, relying on the compassion of others to simply survive.  

A number of international agencies are working very hard to get aid to those who desperately need it. Though just as with floods and fires in Australia, it is mainly local communities in Syria that are bearing the load. The international Red Cross Red Crescent Movement works hand-in-hand with Syrian Arab Red Crescent, an independent, impartial, neutral organisation and the largest provider of humanitarian services in Syria. Crucially, neutrality enables it to cross front lines to deliver aid to virtually all areas of the country.  

On average, a staggering 3.5 million people are helped each month by Syrian Arab Red Crescent staff and volunteers. They risk their lives every day to deliver aid. They're the main delivery arm for United Nations and international non government organisations.  

We must focus our compassion on the local responders - the families, communities, Red Cross and Red Crescent and other agencies - that are helping people through these toughest of times.  

Aid in Syria comes with a terrible cost. Tragically, 50 Syrian and Palestinian Red Crescent volunteers have been killed while providing help in Syria. It's a horrible price to pay for extending a hand to those in need.  

There is no question that the governments of the world have a responsibility to do much more to bring this terrible conflict and suffering to an end.  

We must take a long hard look at what compassion means for our nation. It is time for all Australians - including business leaders, politicians, and community leaders - to turn compassion into action. Now that the world has finally woken up, we must seize this opportunity to find both short-term and lasting solutions to end the suffering for the people of Syria.  

Peter Walton is the Head of International Programs at Australian Red Cross.  

This article was first published in The Australian newspaper Tuesday 15 September, 2015.