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Syria and the humanitarian response

by Vicki Mau and Dr Phoebe Wynn-Pope

Friday September 18, 2015


The longstanding humanitarian crisis that has gripped the world's attention in recent days is not new, and is not restricted to Europe. It is part of an ongoing, complex global issue that needs a multifaceted international, regional and local response.  

Three images have been seared into our memories over recent weeks, as the enormity of the Syrian refugee crisis has reached our papers, screens and social media feeds. The heartbreaking image of three year old Aylan Kurdi, who along with his brother and mother, lost their lives in their journey to safety. The extraordinary relief of Laith Majid, the Syrian father clutching his family after arriving safely at the Greek island of Kos. And the aerial photo of Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, exposing the sheer scale of displacement and need in the region.  

These images have led to an outpouring of individual, community and government compassion, along with recognition that in times of need, those of us who can help have a humanitarian responsibility to do so. There are ways we can assist - both locally in our own countries and by providing support to countries most heavily impacted by the crisis, such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.  

What we haven't seen as often in our media is the ruin and devastation inside Syria. After four years of intense violence, more than 12 million people inside Syria urgently need assistance. Many are now homeless, forced to seek shelter from fighting in damaged buildings. These are the internally displaced, the people unable or unwilling to flee, the people searching for safety within their own country.  

Given this, what can we do?  

Established in war over 150 years ago, and operational in all of the world's humanitarian disasters and emergencies, the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement assists in times of crisis and dire need. Our work is directed by our Fundamental Principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, independence, voluntary service, unity and  universality. Regardless of who you are, where you come from or what religion, culture or ethnicity you identify with, Red Cross provides assistance to those who are most vulnerable and in need.  

At this moment, Red Cross and Red Crescent workers and volunteers are on the ground in Europe, the Middle East and Australia supporting people who are in desperate situations. Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers are providing more than 3.5 million Syrians with life-saving assistance, food parcels, blankets and first aid. In the last four years, 50 Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers have lost their lives while providing such assistance. This work has been ongoing for years, and will continue well after media interest in the current crisis wanes.  

The conflict in Iraq and Syria also sees Red Cross play a key role in raising awareness of International Humanitarian Law, known as "the laws of war". This role involves ensuring that those caught up in fighting are aware of their protections and responsibilities in times of armed conflict, as well as the limits of warfare defined under the Geneva Conventions.  

In Greece, Macedonia, Italy, Serbia and Hungary, Red Cross National Societies are providing humanitarian assistance to people fleeing conflict, supplying emergency health assistance, food, water, hygiene kits and other essential items, as well as reconnecting families.  

Most people seeking safety in Europe are coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is also working in these countries to provide humanitarian assistance. Australian Red Cross has aid workers working in Syria, Jordon and Lebanon.  

In Australia, we work with vulnerable migrants, refugees and people seeking asylum based on need, regardless of how they arrived or their visa status. We have reconnected families separated by conflict or disaster, monitored immigration detention centres, provided emergency relief and run volunteer-led social cohesion programs. We have played a significant role in Australian Government-funded initiatives supporting East Timorese and Kosovars in crisis, as well as recent large scale national programs supporting asylum seekers in Australian communities.  

We strongly support the Australian Government's decision to provide additional humanitarian assistance in Syria and surrounding countries, and the commitment to offer 12,000 additional permanent resettlement places in Australia based on need for some of the most vulnerable refugees affected by the Syria conflict.  

In shaping the details of the Australia-based response, we urge the authorities to consider programs that offer the most comprehensive, community-based humanitarian support. Given the protracted nature of the Syrian crisis, this should include embracing the important elements of family reunion, ongoing protection, work rights and comprehensive resettlement support. Programs should be designed in ways that will ensure the dignity, health and wellbeing of those who seek our protection.  

In addition, Australia must continue contributing to a global and regional response to forced migration. This is not an issue that will subside in the coming years. Syrian refugees are joining millions of refugees and displaced people across the world, all seeking a safe and secure future. Governments must address not only the immediate humanitarian response, but also the underlying causes of such displacements. This is a complex crisis requiring complex solutions. The images we have seen over recent weeks have inspired action - we should seize this opportunity and build on its momentum to ensure that our common humanity forms the basis of any action.  

Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies, working in 189 countries across the world, will continue to work with States, civil society organisations and communities to fulfil our mission to alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found, as well as ensure there is understanding and respect for humanitarian law, support the most vulnerable, and development of humanitarian responses in accordance with international law.  

Vicky Mau is Australian Red Cross's National Manager of Migration Support Programs. Dr Phoebe Wynn-Pope is Australian Red Cross's Director of International Humanitarian Law and Movement Relations