The New Year marked another grim milestone in the European refugee crisis with the one millionth person making the perilous journey by boat across the Mediterranean Sea. Within days, the sea had claimed its first victims of 2016 with the sinking of another crowded vessel off the coast of Turkey.
Who could have predicted this time last year that we would see UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, become operational in Western Europe for the first time since World War II? What we can now predict, however, is that these perilous sea crossings will continue until steps are taken to address the crisis at its source.
The issue is so profound that we all need to consider the implications – the immediate humanitarian emergency is one aspect, the geopolitical and security implications another.
UNHCR's latest figures show that 84 per cent of people seeking asylum in Europe are from conflict zones. Over half are from Syria. Having endured nearly five years of civil war and displacement, their arrival in Europe has brought home to us all the enormity of the tragedy unfolding there.
A significant part of that response in Australia has come from the private sector. From my experience as the founding Chair of Australia for UNHCR, I know that individual Australians do care about refugees and feel a moral responsibility, as citizens of the world, to provide a lifeline for people fleeing the ravages of war. This is reflected in the incredible $40 million raised by Australia for UNHCR in 2015 for refugees-all from individual donors and corporate supporters
Of course, sometimes it takes a singular event to capture the magnitude of the crisis before us.
When a photograph of the drowned Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, was beamed around the world last year, it prompted an unprecedented outpouring of community compassion and generosity and put the onus on governments and big business to follow suit.
Within days, the Australian government had announced a $20 million contribution towards UNHCR operations for Syria and an increased intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees.
I have just returned with other Australian business leaders on a mission to the Middle East as part of the Friendly Nation Initiative. The FNI, with the backing of the Business Council of Australia, aims to build relationships between newly arrived refugees and the corporate sector, and to increase employment and training opportunities. We visited refugee camps and relief operations in Turkey and Lebanon and held high-level meetings to not only witness first hand the scale of the challenges, but to formulate ways in which corporate Australia can best help agencies in the field in the dealing with what is both a heartbreaking humanitarian issue and also a massive logistical and operational challenge.
Consider that Lebanon has a population of less than 6m but is now home to more than 1m refugees. Already some 50,000 children have been born to the dispossessed throughout Lebanon. Older children arriving in these tent cities – some 100,000 under the age of 15 and often orphaned - are deeply traumatised: lost souls susceptible to radicalisation.
Fundamentally what will be needed in war ravaged Syria are development interventions to not only rebuild the country but restore hope and set the conditions for these people to return. This is an issue that will be with us for decades.
Last week in London at the Supporting Syria donor conference more than $US6billion was pledged and it is clear every cent is needed such is the task before the world in rebuilding Syria. Its historical peer is the Marshall Plan.
Former Business Council Australia chairman Tony Shepherd wrote eloquently last week that Australian business can take a leadership role. Indeed, this is about resettled refugees getting jobs, mentoring and training opportunities in Australia. But Australian business needs to dig deep for the mission abroad, in not only providing humanitarian funding but also partnering with UNHCR to provide business know how and innovation to help provide solutions for the long term displaced around the world. It was this vision that was behind the launch of Australia for UNHCR 15 years ago.
Through Australia for UNHCR, Australians from all walks of life are able to support UNHCR’s emergency and humanitarian programs. Monies raised help refugees and the work of UNHCR’s teams on the ground and providing emergency relief. UNHCR is also involved in longer term projects building resilience and sustainability through livelihood projects, education and training.
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.