By Phil Goff, Labour Party Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Trade
I was one of four New Zealand parliamentarians who visited Ramtha last week, a small Jordanian town on the border with Syria.
The town houses a United Nations transit camp for refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria and we arrived to meet some of the 149 who had crossed the border under cover of darkness a few hours earlier.
The televised pictures we view from thousands of kilometres away in the comfort of our lounges do little to convey the raw human emotion of the plight of those seeking to escape the killings which continue daily in Syria.
One man who spoke English tugged on my sleeve and asked how we could help. He pointed to his five young children all aged under eleven, and his wife. She was petite and looked too young to be a mother. He explained that her mother had just been killed by tank fire and as he translated my condolences her eyes welled with tears.
The family had walked and hitched rides for 380 kilometres from their home in Homs. They were glad to be safe but uncertain as to what the future would hold for them. They had left Syria without money or possessions.
Another man displayed a freshly bandaged stump, the remains of an arm which had been blown off by shell fire.
We visited two other longer stay refugee camps. One was for single men at a sports stadium. Crowded into an area not designed for human rehabilitation, and without sponsorship to leave the camp, they were effectively imprisoned. The passion and anger at what the Syrian government had done was palpable. As the weeks pass and frustration grows, it would be easy to see that frustration boil over.
The other camp was for families. Many were Palestinians who had been living in Syria and who had been made refugees for a second time. They faced greater difficulties than Syrians in gaining the sponsorship needed to leave the camp. Families were squeezed into small concrete block rooms with very basic shared facilities. What would the world do to help them, we were asked by the women.
Spare a thought for the Jordanian government in all of this. A small and poor country of just six million, it has already absorbed 1.8 million Palestinian refugees from the wars of 1948 and 1967. Following the US invasion of Iraq, it took another half million or so Iraqi refugees. Now it is having to accept tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. This movement will turn from a flow to a flood if the civil war in Syria deteriorates further. New Zealand’s assistance to refugees by comparison numbers only up to 750 a year.
What should the international community be doing to tackle the cause of the problem? President Bashar al Assad is a member of a minority group in Syria, the Alawites, who are Shiite Muslims. His hold on power rests on his control over the instruments of force in Syria, the Army and the Police. His father killed tens of thousands of his own people to preserve his power and privilege, and the current President is doing the same.
In an uneven battle against rebels an estimated 13,000, mainly civilians, have already died. Efforts by the Arab League and UN representative, Kofi Annan, to broker a ceasefire and a peaceful solution have so far failed.
Russia has, to this point, supported the Syrian regime, along with Syrian Shiite allies, Iran and Iraq. Lack of international consensus has diminished the UN’s ability to pressure al Assad to stop human rights abuses and the killing of civilians.
Under the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, the UN to be effective needs to be able to act – with sanctions, with overwhelming diplomatic pressure, with no fly zones and ultimately the removal of a despotic ruler if everything else fails. How many more thousand will die before there is the agreement and the will internationally for this to happen?