Opinion: The Private Sector
Drives Response to Europe’s Refugee Crisis
MR JOHN DENTON AO,
CHAIRMAN OF AUSTRALIA FOR UNHCR
Last year, as Europe faced a growing number of boat
arrivals, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees warned the European Union that
the time for talk was over.
“We are facing a
moment of truth,” he said. “Richer nations must acknowledge refugees for the victims
they are, fleeing from wars they are unable to prevent or stop. Wealthier
countries must decide to shoulder their fair share at home and abroad, or hide
behind walls as the chaos spreads across the world.”
Prophetic words indeed, but it took the image of a drowned
child to finally galvanise some action.
While the EU continued to argue about what a combined
response to the crisis might entail, the heart wrenching photograph of
three-year- old Aylan Kurdi lying on a Turkish beach prompted a global outpouring
of community compassion and generosity and put the onus on governments and big
business to follow suit.
In Germany and Austria, local people greeted refugee
families with gifts of food, blankets and children’s toys. In Australia too,
the initial response came primarily from the private sector – from individuals like
James Wright, a Melbourne father of two, who used social media to encourage his
fellow Melbournians to donate their unused fares during the city’s train strike
and raised over $41,000 for UNHCR’s relief operations for Syrian refugees. Within
days, the Australian government had announced a $20 million contribution
towards UNHCR operations for Syria and an increased intake of 12,000 Syrian
These are the reasons
we established Australia for UNHCR fifteen years ago.
UNHCR is the world’s leading agency for refugees. Founded by
the United Nations in the wake of World War II, it has a global mandate to
assist and protect people fleeing from conflict and work with governments to
find durable solutions for them.
Through Australia for UNHCR, Australians are able to support
the agency’s emergency and humanitarian programs. Funds raised help refugees in
situations of crisis, assisting the work of UNHCR’s teams on the ground and
providing emergency relief and shelter items.
In recent weeks, as those desperate scenes from Europe have
been beamed around the world, dozens of individual Australians have approached
me to ask how they could help. From my
experience with our many thousands of donors, Australians do care about
refugees and feel a moral responsibility, as citizens of the world, to provide
a lifeline for these frightened people fleeing the ravages of war.
The global refugee crisis has become the biggest
humanitarian issue of our times and demands a concerted response from us all.
Leading the way in Australia as high profile supporters of
UNHCR are firms like Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Australia Post, Colonial First
State Global Asset Management, PwC and Perpetual. Other Australian corporates looking for ways to act and support the calls of their
employees should find a way to help UNHCR do its essential life-saving work,
and help the women and children cast adrift from war-torn nations like Syria.
John W.H. Denton AO is
Chief Executive Officer of Corrs Chambers Westgarth Lawyers and the founding
Chair of Australia for UNHCR.
Yarrie Bangurra, Special Youth Representative for Australia for UNHR
For those of you who were unable to attend our Mother’s Day
Lunch in May, I want to share with you Ms Yarrie Bangura’s deeply moving
keynote address including the poem she wrote and recited on the day.
Australia for UNHCR Special Youth Representative, Yarrie Bangurra
Yarrie reflects on her happy childhood in Sierra Leone
before her country descended into civil war in the early 1990s. She tells of
her family’s flight from violence, of life in a refugee camp and of her
feelings on being resettled in Australia. It is rare to be given an insight
into the refugee experience as seen through the eyes of a child. I know that
you will find her words as uplifting and inspiring as we in the audience did
Some of you will have seen Yarrie perform in the hit stage play
The Baulkham Hills Ladies Troupe
which has enjoyed hugely successful runs in Sydney and London.
We are delighted that she has agreed to join Australia for
UNHCR as a Special Youth Representative. Please watch Yarrie's inspirational speech, or read the transcript in the text below.
Ms Yarrie Bangura, Australia for UNHCR
Mother’s Day Lunch, Friday 8 May, The Ivy Ballroom, Sydney
I was a happy bright young girl who lived in a bungalow
house with my family. We had a big lounge where we sat as a family to relax and
talk, sharing individual opinions in discussion. I had friends and we played
together when it was sunset, and outdoor African games that every child my age
loved to play but when the night began to settle in we finished our games and
went back to our homes. I was blessed with beautiful clothes; my father bought
several things when he travelled on ship around the world. I loved the beautiful nature of life; beautiful
trees, breeze and natural foods were all I knew. Life was meaningful and I had
huge hopes to study in order to fulfil my dreams; we were living a comfortable
life, there was food and my mother even sponsored some children to go to
school. Everybody was living in happiness, peace and love; it was fun and
everything was wonderful.
Yarrie Bangura with her father and mother at Australia for UNHCR's Mother's Day Lunch.
Then, one day when I was very young, everything changed in a
deadly and bloody day that recorded the beginning of war in my country, Sierra
Leone. People were killing each other; the young and old ran for safety;
children crying because their parents were nowhere to be found or they
witnessed their parents being murdered by rebels; hands and legs chopped off in
brutal acts with victims left in a pool of their own blood; houses burnt down;
and gun shots everywhere. It was a terrible experience to see young teenagers
recruited without choice as rebel soldiers; young, innocent children who had
their bright futures stolen from them and turned in to horrible pawns of war. Streets became empty and quiet like a graveyard, animals silent in the street,
heavy smoke from gunfire and houses on fire. The only loud voices were the
rebels and their loud music rejoicing in their actions. It was an inhuman and
barbaric experience. My mother and father knew our family must escape.
After a long journey, we reached Kalya refugee camp, and it
was a moment I remember with joy because UNHCR supplied the refugees with
tents, groundnut oil, maize and a blanket. The only thing we saw otherwise were
refugees and bushes in the unfriendly environment. There were no buildings,
only the tents, and people at the camp were sad because of their experience
escaping the war. There seemed to be little hope for the future, we all had to
do our best to survive; and not long after arriving I was ill, shivering and my
teeth chattering. Even though we were cared for in the camp, my family thought
it best for me to live with my extended family in the city of Fulcarea, a long
walk from the camp. My auntie Kadiatu, accommodated me despite the fact that
her home was already full of people, and she helped me to recover.
A captive audience listens to Yarrie Bangura speak at the Australia for UNHCR Mother's Day Lunch.
When I was 10 years old, our family was told they would be
moving to Australia. I was told Australia was the last continent on earth.
I remember the day when we were told our documents to travel
to Australia were ready and that we could leave. It was such a happy moment. My
hope for the future was restored and I kept day-dreaming of a new life with
peace and a great future. The process took a long period of time but on the 9th
of November 2004 when the time came to fly to Australia, I thought it was a
trick and too good to believe. When my mum started to get her African dress
ready and cooked a very delicious meal and I ate so much that my clothes could
not fit me, then I knew it was real.
"At Sydney airport, my eyes were everywhere and I said to myself that I am in heaven because it was so beautiful and breathtaking, and so multicultural! I had no idea there would be so many people from around the world!"
My extended family came with us to the airport, and as we
were about to pass through security to the boarding area, they were in tears
which made me emotional too. When we boarded the flight to Australia I waved
goodbye to sorrow, sadness and poverty. The journey took three days to arrive
in Sydney. At Sydney airport, my eyes were everywhere and I said to myself that
I am in heaven because it was so beautiful and breathtaking, and so
multicultural! I had no idea there would be so many people from around the
world! I was full of joy. I had no doubt
that I was the happiest person on earth. That night I could not tell if I was
dreaming or if it was all real.
Dressing up for my new school and seeing my future begin in
the greatest country is also one of the best feelings I have ever had. Putting
on my new school uniform increased my self-esteem and it was a joyful moment to
feel like a student. My parents, especially my mother, told me and my brothers
and sisters that if we studied hard we would be successful in life. I started
wondering and questioning myself, ‘how can I be educated, when I do not know
how to read or write?’ In Australia before I enrolled at school, I watched
television programs all the time, particularly the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’. I was
amazed and surprised when I saw a coloured woman on TV, talking to people of
different race and nationality and watching her inspired me; if she can make
it, maybe I can too!
In Africa, school students were sometimes beaten as
punishment. So school was a fearful and scary place for me at first. I didn’t
know what to expect but I soon realised my new school was so different and
wonderful even though it was challenging learning for the very first time to
read and write. My teachers were excellent; they were so patient with me and
totally committed to help me achieve my best. I loved it and it really changed
my life. I began to read and write; my understanding of the world opened up. On
the way to school, I would see people of different nationalities going to work
which was amazing and then I started picturing myself in their shoes. I have
always prayed to God and each time I pray, it gives me faith and strength that
nothing is impossible.
A year after I arrived in Australia, I started having
nightmares. At night I could not sleep and my eyes stayed open. I would cover
my head with my blanket and my body would be shaking. I could not bear to be
alone at home during the day or night. I would start to see something like a
quick flash and all of a sudden someone calling my name. Every night when I closed
my eyes I was in a battle field, people being killed, rebels chasing me,
gunshot everywhere, and I tried to save the people in my dreams. I wondered why
my past was haunting me; I was so confused, why was I experiencing this when I
knew I had left everything back home. I was depressed and it was getting out of
"Writing was like counselling and healed me of my experience, and when I began writing all the nightmares vanished; it was unbelievable how I could put my experience and feelings into words."
I told my mum and she said to me that if it continued we would seek help.
So I started writing; I decided to go to a bookshop to buy a notebook, and I
would describe what was happening to me because I could not tell people what I
was going through but with my writing I could express my feelings, my thoughts
and my story. Writing was like counselling and healed me of my experience, and
when I began writing all the nightmares vanished; it was unbelievable how I
could put my experience and feelings into words. It was like a divine gift from
God. Some days I still write lyrics or
poetry and short stories.
I feel so lucky and favoured by God to be in Australia
because I have a golden opportunity to study human rights and international
development at university. The reason why I chose to study this is to one day
assist those back home who are victims of war and to contribute to African
development. UNHCR has been one of my biggest inspirations to study this course
because their support of refugees in Africa has been tremendous. When I saw
their supplies at the refugee camp for the first time it was really a relief to
know that someone cared about us. Here I am today, speaking at an Australia for
UNHCR event, supporting their mission and objectives. This is a dream come true
and a moment I will never, ever forget.
UNHCR helped me to be the person I am today, and all I ask
is that you help them. With your support, UNHCR will continue to help so many
other people, just like me.
Thank you, and happy Mother’s Day for Sunday, Mum.
Speech and poem reproduced with the kind permission of the
Yarrie Bangurra being presented with the title of Special Youth Representative to Australia for UNHCR by Chairman John W.H. Denton AO
few weeks ago I visited the Gambella region of Ethiopia which over the last
year has seen more than 195,000 refugees from South Sudan flee across the
is one of the many ‘invisible’ emergencies UNHCR is dealing with at any one
time. It is surprising that that there is little or no media coverage of what
is one of the largest refugee crises in Africa today. In fact, Ethiopia is now
hosting the largest refugee population in Africa with 700,000 refugees. And
with only 10% of its operations funded, UNHCR needs much more support.
had heard about the dire situation for refugees in the camps in Gambella when
the emergency first began back in 2013. This was compounded by a very harsh
environment (the week my visit temperatures were averaging 45 degrees). There
is lack of amenities and many of the newly arriving refugees are malnourished
and in generally poor condition.
the situation remains difficult, I was amazed at what my UNHCR colleagues and
partners had managed to achieve despite the undeniable challenges.
the day I flew in from Addis Ababa, there was an unseasonal break in the high
temperatures. Rain clouds hovered but a torrential downpour only came on the
last night making travel the next day tricky.
the rain comes, large parts of the Gambella region, which extends across a
swampy flood plain, become submerged. Last year two large refugee camps -
Leitchuor and Nip Nip - were overwhelmed by flooding. This year, to avoid a
repeat of the disaster, UNHCR is embarking on an ambitious plan to transport
50,000 refugees settled in the most vulnerable areas to higher grounds. It’s a
race against time and UNHCR with its Ethiopian government partner ARRA are mobilising
every conceivable form of transport including boats, helicopters and trucks, to
relocate refugees to a new refugee camp JEWI ( pronounced Jowie) which has been
carved out of the bush 12 kilometres from Gambella town.
Pagak Border Transit Centre
arrival I go straight to the South Sudan/Ethiopian border crossing at Pagak. It
is here that thousands of refugees crossed over when tensions between the South
Sudanese President and his Deputy sent the country into civil war at the end of
the Pagak Border Transit Centre I sit down to talk with new arrivals who are
about to be registered by UNHCR. Nyatiang Emok Dey tells me she had walked for
seven days from her village in Upper Nile State with her three young children.
She describes the trip to me as ‘very terrible’ and you can see the exhaustion
in the bodies and faces of the young family. She is one of the thousands of
mothers who have fled South Sudan. In fact 90% of the camps I visit over the
next few days are made up of women and children.
quietly beside Nyatiang is an old woman who could be anything from 50 to 80
years old. It is hard to tell but her rheumy eyes have clearly seen years of
hardship. Nyayul Chol doesn’t know her age. She tells me she arrived with her
grandson after travelling by truck and then walking the rest of the way. She
looks so frail I wonder how she managed. Once in the camp she will be issued with a package for the
elderly – a special ration of maize, a commode, extra cooking utensils,
mattress, extra blankets and crutches (if necessary) and eye glasses.
is one of the many elderly people I meet in the camp. This strikes me as
unusual as often older people will stay back in the village despite the
dangers. But it appears that everyone is upping stumps from the hardest hit
South Sudanese states of Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei. These new arrivals will
be taken to either Kule or Tierkidi camps not far along the road.
travel that road to Kule camp ourselves with a steady stream of locals herding
their cattle or selling local produce. Kule is home to about 47,000 refugees,
most of whom arrived after a second wave of violence hit South Sudan in May
2014. My first meeting is with community leaders elected by their fellow
refugees to voice their concerns and needs. They list food as their number one
priority followed by shelter, education, livelihoods and SGBV prevention.
women leaders give firsthand accounts of being attacked collecting firewood
outside the camp or taking their maize and wheat grain to the nearby ‘shanty’
town to be milled. There is a primary school but no secondary school. Umjimma
Abdahado, a 43-year-old mother of seven, suggests the need for a ‘women’s
friendly school’ so women can also learn to read and write - a sign of the
social changes resulting from displacement. Back home in South Sudan, men would
be more literate and would handle ‘outside business’. Here, with so many
husbands or fathers absent, women are having to take on new roles and need to
be literate to do so.
the very name symbolises the ongoing cycle of violence South Sudan has
experienced. Nyakhor means ‘child of war’. Thirty-five years after being born
in conflict she now sadly sees her own children becoming ‘children of war’.
Nyakhor however is determined that the time in refugee camps won’t be a wasted
opportunity for her family. ”We will not sit simply like blind men or women but
we will do something,” she tells me.
is certainly no ‘sitting still’ in the child friendly space funded by UNHCR and
run by partner Plan Ethiopia. The under 5 ‘safe place to play’ is a hive of
activity with kids turning out amazing Lego constructions: bridges, supply
trucks and wheels. Most of the staff are
also refugees and they are glad of the small income this work provides.
are so many unaccompanied children here who have become separated from their
parents during the fighting. They are fostered out to relatives or other
families and receive a special package of Non Food Items including clothes,
blankets, books and school supplies. I
hand over some basketballs and soccer balls which are quickly swept up by the
kids in a fast and furious game on the rocky ground.
Next stop is
the Nutrition Centre run by NGO partner GOAL Program. Myamal Galwak sits
quietly in the Outpatient Therapeutic Clinic nursing her nine month old baby
who is contentedly sucking on a sachet of peanut based high protein
Ready-To-Use-Food called Plumpy’nut – all the while giving loving smiles to mum
and coy ones to me.
say this tiny but healthy girl was at death’s door two months ago when she
arrived in the camp severely malnourished and sick with watery diarrhoea. After
being put on an intensive feeding program she has gained weight and is on the
road to recovery.
nutrition is a big issue here and high levels of malnutrition persist. Last
year UNHCR and WFP mounted an extraordinary appeal calling for help to fund
feeding needs for displaced people inside South Sudan and for refugees like the
people I am meeting now. Australian donors through Australia for UNHCR
responded by donating over $600,000 in support. Across Gambella the very high
rate of Crude and Under 5 Mortality rates have been reduced to acceptable
levels largely due to the efforts of UNHCR and its partners managing diseases
such as malaria, dehydration secondary to diarrhoea and complications of severe
Tierkidi Refugee Camp
is another big need. Standing on the hill looking out over Tierkidi refugee
camp I see the neatly ordered rows of tents stretch out below me. Despite being
here for more than nine months, 85% of the camp still ‘lives under canvas’.
With the average tent life only six months, upgrading accommodation is really
urgent and I am hoping Australia for UNHCR can provide support in this area.
visit a family in one of the transitional shelters with bamboo walls, mud
daubing and a thatched roof based on the traditional village home called the 'tukel’. It is surprisingly cool inside and Nyakong Loung Louy has somehow
managed to create a welcoming home for her family. A table holds neatly stacked
cooking pots and dainty tea glasses. Sleeping mats hung over a roof beam.
Nyakong tells me she comes from Bor, ‘a proper town’ where her husband had a
good job working with NGOs. Her 16-year-old daughter, Nyaku, arrived here at
the camp before her. Believing she would never see her family again, she tells
me, she was overwhelmed when she was reunited with her mother. 'I couldn’t
believe I would see her again. I thought she might have died. But when I saw
her standing there I was overwhelmed and thanked God. You think you will be
separated but then you come together again,' she still says with disbelief and
amazement in her voice.
RADA Rehabilitation Centre
I need any further evidence of the resilience of refugees here and the
commitment of UNHCR and its partners to do their best, my last stop confirms
it. We arrive at the RADA Rehabilitation Centre. Inside, a number of disabled
men are exercising with great purpose on stationary bikes, treadmills and a
Dak is the Chair of the Committee for Disability. The 21-year-old comes from
the Upper Nile. Disabled from the age of two by polio, Enoch appears very small
in his wheelchair. However, after I strike up a conversation with him, he is
very engaged and emanates a huge determination and spirit. He tells me after
his village was attacked, he fled with his aunt and her 7 children. At first he
wheeled himself in his tricycle wheelchair along the dirt road. He then got a
punctured tyre and the family was unable to push him in the mud. His aunt and
cousins then carried him for five days. He says they saw no other transport in
all that time.
at Pagak with thousands of other refugees at the height of the emergency, Enoch
spent 21 days living without any support facilities. As newly elected Chair of
the Disability Committee he is working with UNHCR and other partners to improve
conditions for the many disabled in the camp, including latrines with room
enough for commodes, more wheelchairs and crutches.
Bol Gatkuoth, this is the second time he has become a refugee. He spent his
youth in a refugee camp where he says he got his education at both primary and
secondary school. Returning to South
Sudan in 2009, he started working with the rehabilitation of child solders but
then war broke out again and he fled with his young family, first to the UN
Compound in Malakal, South Sudan and then on foot across the border. On the way
his young child died from dysentery.
is almost unimaginable to me how this smart young man still has any optimism
after what he has endured but Bol tells me 'you have to look to the future'. Facing perhaps many more years in exile, he hopes to get a scholarship to
enable him to undertake a Masters in Social Work so he can help people.
number of the disabled men I met were victims of disease but there were others
like 19-year-old Gatiwal who lost his right leg after being shot in the
conflict back in South Sudan. UNHCR and RADA helped him get a prosthetic leg
fitted in Addis Ababa. Gatiwal tells me the fitting rubs against the smashed
bone in his upper thigh but he says stoically that ‘I am proud now to be
standing on two legs again’.
feel quite humbled by the strength of those I have met - both refugees and aid
workers. When I apologise for only being able to bring a few footballs, one of
the staff kindly admonishes me. ‘What you (Australia for UNHCR) have given is
not a little thing, it’s a great contribution. And it’s more than funds or
balls. You coming here make us feel that someone is looking after us. It’s not
a minor thing.’