Australians are very generous in times of crisis. Holding benefit concerts, donating to appeals and holding an office fundraiser are commonplace in the aftermath of a natural disaster or for a good cause. Many have donated to the recent Typhoon Haiyan appeal in order to provide aid to those who need it most; to allow them to rebuild and recover.
Our attention spans however, are often too short. The devastation felt by the people of Philippines will only be resolved through continued support and aid for many years to come. But our support for a crisis inevitably wanes after the initial headlines fade, or another new issue takes its place. Our commitment usually does not extend to prolonged relocation of victims of global crises, or continued giving on a large scale.
For victims of a crisis occurring now on the other side of the world, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Current discussion focuses primarily on political considerations, and fails to take into account those suffering most. This is the crisis that has been called the "greatest humanitarian catastrophe" of this century and condemned by the UN as a "disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history".
But amidst politically-charged debates on the use of chemical weapons, military drone strikes and UN intervention, the real victims of the Syrian civil war, its refugees and its children, are slowly being relegated to the background. It is becoming a political issue, rather than a human one.
In September this year, the number of refugees fleeing over the Syrian borders to Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq to escape the violent conflict reached 2 million. Currently, it is estimated that over 2.5 million persons have fled the conflict, more than half of whom are believed to be children. Last Sunday the UN confirmed that thousands of new refugees had fled to Lebanon to escape fighting in the Qalamoun mountains on the Lebanese border. Many of these refugees are families, arriving with only the clothes on their back.
In Lebanon alone, there are nearly 800,000 registered Syrian refugees, and many more who are unregistered, living in makeshift tent settlements, in previously established Palestinian refugee camps, and in already poverty-stricken areas.
This means that Lebanon, a country the geographical size of greater Sydney, with a population of only 4 million, has opened its borders over the past two years to an estimated 1.4 million registered and non-registered refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. 1 in 5 people now living in Lebanon are a Syrian refugee.
These figures are staggering not only in terms of the sheer number of people being affected and displaced from their homes, but also the global and intergenerational impact this will hold for the future. These figures certainly put the 13,700 places allotted to the humanitarian refugee intake in Australia into perspective: a veritable drop in the ocean.
The Syrian conflict is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time in terms of brutality, numbers affected and the impact on children. With no resolution in sight, there is the potential for an entire generation of Syrian children to be deprived of access to a permanent home, formal education and basic health needs. The impact of this will reverberate not only for generations of Syrians to come, but will also be felt in those neighbouring countries who have openly accepted victims of war seeking refuge, and whose own services now face severe stress.
The flood of refugees into neighbouring countries is also affecting those countries' own ability to provide services to their populations. The influx of an estimated 400,000 Syrian refugee school-aged children to Lebanon is already placing unsustainable stress on the country's education, health and sanitation systems. The Lebanese government is supporting NGOs in providing 100,000 places at local schools, while UN agencies such as UNICEF attempt to provide learning to those not lucky enough to find a place through the Back to Learning campaign.
For many children however, after having already missed two years of schooling in Syria, attending school is simply too difficult. Some are set to work in order to sustain their families, and girls in particular often stay in the makeshift settlements to care for younger children. The gains made in female education in Syria in the past are regressing as a result of the refugee crisis.
Unlike other neighbouring countries, Lebanon's borders currently remain open to the thousands of Syrians fleeing the conflict each day. How long this can possibly continue for however, is unknown. It is vital that countries such as Australia, who so far have committed to resettling only 500 Syrian refugees play their part in protecting children from an uncertain future, and commit to a more long-term plan to alleviate the crisis.
While a political solution is important, a humanitarian response is vital to ensure that an entire generation of children does not suffer the consequences of war. Acting now, rather than waiting for a political solution, is a must. Resettlement of more Syrian refugees through a greater humanitarian intake, combined with a continued public giving program is the only way forward.
The refugee children of Syria so desperately need our aid, our donations to erect new classrooms, and our government's support to resettle war-stricken families. In order to ensure that an entire generation of Syrian children is not lost to history, we must pay attention to the issues before us for longer than the headlines. We must continue to support victims of war, natural disaster and poverty for longer than a cake stall. We must keep giving, until the light at the end of the tunnel finally appears.