2nd Session, 41st Parliament,

Volume 149, Issue 56

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Honourable Noël A. Kinsella, Speaker

Human Rights

Committee Authorized to Study How the Mandates and Practices of the UNHCR and UNICEF have Evolved to Meet the Needs of Displaced Children in Modern Conflict Situations

Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer, pursuant to notice of March 26, 2014, moved:

That the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights be authorized to examine and report on how the mandates and practices of the UNHCR and UNICEF have evolved to meet the needs of displaced children in modern conflict situations, with particular attention to the current crisis in Syria; and

That the committee submit its final report no later than December 31, 2014.

She said: Honourable senators, the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights is proposing to study the mandates of UNICEF and UNHCR through a case study of the situation of Syrian children in that country and neighbouring ones. This will allow us to go beyond theory and generalities and study the situation on the ground for children.

UNHCR, UNICEF and other partners have focused on this issue with the No Lost Generation strategy, which is seeking $1 billion for education and protection programs for Syrian children given the scale of the crisis.

UNICEF recently reported that the Syrian conflict has been the most damaging one in the region in recent times for children, affecting 5.5 million of them. This number includes 1 million children in areas that are under siege and where humanitarian assistance providers cannot reach due to the violence.

Thousands of children have lost limbs and the UN estimates 10,000 children have been killed, with UNICEF saying the number may be far more.

About half of the Syrian school-aged children living in the country or neighbouring countries are not in school. Two million children need psychological support or treatment. One in 10 Syrian children is a refugee, and the situation keeps getting worse. The number of children affected has doubled in the past year.

The Syrian conflict seems an appropriate choice for the committee given the magnitude of its impacts on children. It also provides the opportunity to look at how the mandates of UNHCR and UNICEF function in different settings, such as within Syria itself; in countries where there are designated refugee camps, such as Jordan; and in countries where there are no such camps and refugees are dispersed, such as in Lebanon.

The committee will be assessing whether there will be a need for travel after hearing from a number of initial witnesses. Honourable senators already have the order of reference in front of them, and therefore I ask the Senate to approve this study.

[Translation]

Hon. Joan Fraser (Deputy Leader of the Opposition): May I ask the committee chair a question?

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Absolutely.

[English]

Senator Fraser: Senator Jaffer, the subject is gripping. Does the committee plan to travel, Syria being a war zone right now?

Senator Jaffer: I did say the committee will look at travel once we have heard testimony from a number of witnesses. We have not decided as of yet.

[Translation]

Hon. Ghislain Maltais: Am I entitled to a short debate? This is a very important file.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: You are absolutely entitled to that.

Senator Maltais: Thank you, Senator Jaffer, for the work that you have done on this file. For the three years that I have been here, I have been affiliated with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. I have had the opportunity to attend five meetings, and thanks to our Prime Minister, Canada was the first country to raise the issue of Syrian refugees. Canada is a leader on this file.

Honourable senators, indulge me for a moment. Close your eyes and just imagine 2 million refugees with no water, no shelter and no food. Beyond any religious and political considerations, we are human beings. We are all fathers and grandfathers. There is nothing more important than humanity. The people in Syria are living in inhuman conditions. They are thirsty, they are hungry and they are not sure if they will live to see tomorrow because, unfortunately, there are terrorists among them. It is a real massacre.

As a democratic country, Canada has done more than its share. At the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Canada was the first country to come to the aid of the women, children and men in Syria. The Americans came next. I see that Senator Downe is here with us. We went to Geneva together and joined Senator Massicotte in Istanbul, Montenegro and Vienna to advocate for the refugees, because the 59 countries that had direct responsibility were lagging behind. Canada is not next door to Syria. It is very complicated to deliver humanitarian assistance to that country.

Furthermore, it’s not up to the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, alone, to provide assistance. It’s up to humanity as a whole. European countries, and in particular the Mediterranean countries, took their time and are still waiting to provide assistance. I won’t name them, but you know who they are.

Since Canada has become involved in these meetings, England, Germany, Belgium and France have started to provide a little assistance. It is much easier for them. I think that, as human beings, we have a duty to make people share what little milk of human kindness we have left.

Honourable senators, if we do not go to them to provide assistance, they will eventually come to us for what they need. I think that as Canadians, we have a duty to help them, but we also have a duty to put pressure on other countries to help the neighbouring countries and to help alleviate the suffering of those Syrians in refugee camps. Thank you.

(1710)

[English]

Senator Jaffer: Senator Maltais, will you take a question?

Senator Maltais: Yes.

Senator Jaffer: I have looked into what you were saying, and Canada has done an exceptional job in the funding it has provided for UNICEF and UNHCR. One of the reasons Senator Andreychuk has suggested this study is because of the tremendous support we have given and that we have to look at how the mandate is working and how we can move to make sure the monies provided are going to the children.

Do you agree with the work of the committee?

[Translation]

Senator Maltais: I agree with Senator Jaffer, but I believe that under the terms of reference, we should look at what the Department of Foreign Affairs is doing in conjunction with the OSCE and UNICEF. We shouldn’t get involved in a lot of different initiatives because we will be overwhelmed. We need to be practical and realistic because people can’t wait for centuries. Help is needed immediately, not in the future. It is needed now, today.

[English]

Hon. A. Raynell Andreychuk: Senator Jaffer indicated that I proposed this study, and I was very pleased to see her enthusiastic response, and the committee’s, in studying it. The purpose was not to look at whether Canada’s contribution or activities were adequate or otherwise. In the Human Rights Committee, we have studied areas that other people are not looking at. There is so much coverage now on children and the plight of children in Syria that you would have to be tone deaf not to hear the voices coming out of the Syrian situation; they are always focused on the children.

The problem is that a lot of people don’t study the mechanisms as much as they should. We always say, “Well, the UNHCR is there.” But the real fact is that, in Lebanon, the refugees are not recognized refugees; they’re only now starting to be registered. They’re over the borders in a very unknown situation. We also know that UNICEF has its mandate and gets money to do what it has to, but the needs of children are way beyond what UNHCR and UNICEF can provide.

The other thing is that these agencies were started in response to the needs of the day. We haven’t really looked at whether UNHCR has the appropriate mandate to fit into today’s conflicts. Many of them are now intra-country conflicts, inside a country. This is not a war. This is not a cross-border dispute. This is Syria’s internal dynamics. There are children today dying, and there are children who are not being adequately dealt with. Those agencies that can work minimally inside Syria also need to be addressed.

The Human Rights Committee could do a valuable job for the Government of Canada and the UN system in looking at where we need to modernize the mandates and look at the needs of the children today, because they are vastly different than what the expectations were when these were set up. It’s absolutely true that we have children who have been born in refugee camps and continue to live in refugee camps, and so it was a timely study.

That’s why the travel issue is secondary. There’s an urgency to find out what is being done and what needs to be done. Then the committee can look at whether there’s a need to go on the ground. But the more urgent thing is to sort out responsibilities and see where there is an adequate response and where there is a need that isn’t being covered by agencies or countries, because I think there is a false impression that once UNHCR or UNICEF is involved, somebody is looking after the children. They are only looking after as many as they can within their mandate and in the way they can.

My concern is with what is happening in Syria, which has gotten itself into this situation, and what is happening on ground in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. This should be of great concern to us.

The study is very timely, and I trust the Senate will approve it. We will look at the issue whether there is an expense for travelling, but I have a strong feeling that we’ll have more witnesses here than we can handle.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Further debate?

Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

(Motion agreed to and report adopted.)

 

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