Thursday, June 20, 2013

World Refugee Day 2013: Governor-General calls on Australians to support refugee crisis in Syria

The Governor-General of Australia, Her Excellency the Honourable, Ms Quentin Bryce AC CVO, gave the following speech at Australia for UNHCR’s World Refugee Day Breakfast today. 

The Governor-General delivers the keynote speech
at the World Refugee Day Breakfast

I am honoured to be with you, on World Refugee Day, which also marks my fifth year as Patron of Australia for UNHCR.

We come together to pay tribute to the millions of people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes. And we reaffirm our commitment to protect and assist them.

Australia for UNHCR has made outstanding contributions towards improving the lives of refugees. The growing contribution from Australians has increased the support of UNHCR’s humanitarian programs, making a real and positive difference to people’s lives.

In 2013 there are more than 10 million people seeking refuge across borders. More than 15 million are displaced within their own countries. Together that’s more than 25 million - more than the population of Australia.

One family forced to flee is too many 

Friends, the global theme for World Refugee Day is “One family forced to flee is too many.”

We are asked to take one minute – the time in which many families are forced to gather up their possessions and flee - and look at how we might help at least one family. A reminder also to look behind the statistics, and see the family – the mother, the father, the children. These families have been forced to leave their homes and possessions behind, not knowing what will happen to them tomorrow, or if they will ever make it home.

My friends, our country is peaceful, multicultural, clever, successful, and filled with opportunity. Hand in hand with this opportunity comes the responsibility of engaging with the world, playing our role as a good and generous global citizen.

I am proud to represent Australia and to reflect both this opportunity and responsibility. I am proud to help Australia play its role in what is an increasingly complex international environment. As Governor General I have been privileged to meet many people from every walk of life - literally from Kings and Queens - to refugees in remote desert camps.

I am one link in that strong chain of collective endeavour that connects Australia and Australians to the world, giving a voice at the highest levels to the values, aspiration and ideas of our society, and an ear to those who want to engage with us and want their own voices heard. So many enriching experiences. Again and Again I hear myself saying to people: “I wish you could have been there with me.”

Who could forget the pomp and ceremony and - yes - joy and happiness of the Royal Wedding. Or the pride of a new nation, Timor Leste, celebrating its 10th Anniversary – against all odds. The bravery of our Defence forces continuing Australia’s long standing traditions, defending freedom in far flung countries like Afghanistan. The strong hearts and compassion of our humanitarian workers who reach out to every corner of the globe from Africa and Asia, across the South Pacific and in the Middle East.

The effects of conflict on women and children 

I remember so many faces and so many conversations. But it is the women and girls who stay with me most. It’s become a habit in each country I go to, to request a round table with women leaders from every sector so that I can hear first-hand about their concerns and perspectives - that's how I find out about things I really want to know.

Again and always - the issues women raise are the same ones I’ve been involved in all my working life – protection against sexual and gender based violence, access to education and training, improved reproductive health, reduced maternal and infant mortality and economic independence. I know that these concerns are even more so for refugee women and girls made so vulnerable by displacement. This was brought home to me when I met with women and children in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan last year.

Today this camp is home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees, with Jordan itself hosting approximately half a million who have fled for their lives from the conflict.

I will never forget the women there, distraught with anxiety, asking “Why don’t we matter?”

That camp was set up out of nowhere, out of nothing, by Andrew Harper, a long, lanky Aussie from Wagga, who showed us around.

The Governor-General visits Za’atri Refugee Camp, accompanied by
Andrew Harper, head of UNHCR in Jordan.

My experiences in Za’atari moved me to tears. It was overwhelming to see so many mothers, so many small children, gathered together in this desolate isolated place far from their homes they had to abandon.

Of course as a mother and a grandmother I thought of my own family. How would it be for them? How would we survive?

It is impossible to comprehend the apprehension people feel in these situations, the risks and dangers they face, the constant anxiety they endure. How draining that must be, how debilitating. I could see in the eyes of the women gathered around me the extreme weariness that comes from such long days and nights and constant worry.

The Governor-General meeting with Syrian refugee women in Za’atri, Jordan
In April I traveled to New York to meet with high level UN officials including UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, and Valerie Amos, Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. The focus of our discussions was indeed Syria, now on the brink of catastrophe.

Over 800 days of conflict has placed an unbearable strain on the population. There are now more than 1.5 million who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. And a further six million others displaced from their homes within Syria.

By the end of year it is anticipated that 10 million people – half of the population of Syria – will be in need of aid. More than half the refugees fleeing Syria are children.

The stories I heard in New York about what was happening to Syrians both within Syria and outside were shocking – where all law and order has broken down and the strong and violent prey on the weak and vulnerable.

All too often women and children were the victims - so often the innocent targets in this modern age of warfare. Addressing the impacts of conflict on women and children is a key part of Australia’s work in the Security Council, and we are especially active on the protection of civilians.

The Governor-General with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Australia’s role in protecting refugees 

Our Government recently announced a contribution of an extra $12M towards emergency relief for Syrian refugees, bringing Australia’s total humanitarian contribution to the crisis in Syria to $78.5 million. But the needs far outstrip the demands.

Three weeks ago the UN launched its revised humanitarian appeal for Syria and, together with refugee hosting countries in the region, called for US$5 billion, the largest appeal in history.

This is where your support, your engagement is so important. A world wide tsunami of humanitarian action is required – from governments, the corporate sector, and individuals around the world.

The key needs:

  • Protection for all refugees, especially the most vulnerable
  • Life Saving Support: food, shelter and medical
  • Restocking emergency supplies to prepare for new waves of arrivals
  • Supporting countries that are bearing the brunt of refugee outflows
  • Providing education to thousands of children now stranded in a wasteland

UNHCR is already providing this kind of support - leading a coalition of 100 NGOs, UN Agencies and Red Cross societies. But we can help UNHCR reach many more hundreds of thousands of needy people.

One family forced to flee is too many. Families are the foundation of our communities and societies. Break them apart and you break the community. Support and strengthen them, and they can prosper and contribute to the family that is the United Nations.

I don’t know what the prospects are for Syria as a nation in the current environment. But I do know what the prospects will be for the millions of dispossessed and displaced Syrian civilians if we don’t help them in their hour of need.

During my recent visit to New York our Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, Gary Quinlan repeated that sobering axiom that: “The UN was not made to get the world to heaven, but to prevent it from going to hell.”

Today each one of us has an opportunity to push humanity in the right direction – by helping at least one refugee family. As an Australian I feel privileged to have that opportunity and to give a voice to the voiceless today.

Thank you for listening; for being here; for giving.

You can help Syrians in urgent need of life-saving assistance by donating to Australia for UNHCR’s Syria Crisis Appeal.


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