With a Lion Behind and the Sea in Front, G20 Leaders Head to Hamburg

Not far from Hamburg’s heavily-guarded Messe und Congress, the convention centre where much of the business of the G20 summit will be done, is an abandoned theatre, the Rote Flora, now a graffiti-covered squat where the blazing red banners of anti-G20 activists this week are proclaiming: ‘Welcome to Hell’.

A focus for the protests of those who believe that G20 policies are responsible ‘for hellish conditions like hunger, war and the climate disaster’, the banners of the Rota Flora are urging the leaders of the world’s largest economies, accounting for 85 per cent of global GDP, to ‘make the planet great again’.

Most Australians have never seen, or felt, the effects of hunger and conflict, heard the awful sound of approaching gunfire or the absolute silence of a starving child, so find it hard to imagine this hell on earth, but believe me it exists as I have witnessed the human horror in all too many areas of our planet.

If you are from Syria, which has been consumed by war for the past six years; or the Iraqi city of Mosul, from which people are now emerging with hurt and haunted eyes; or South Sudan, the young democracy that has plunged into terrifying violence; or Somaliland or Yemen, where drought tips into famine; or the Democratic Republic of Congo, where unrest tips into bloodshed, it’s not that hard.

While North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile tests, terrorism and the first meeting of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will undoubtedly dominate media coverage of this G20, German chancellor Angela Merkel has been at pains to ensure that the world’s most vulnerable are not forgotten, insisting on an agenda that includes sustainable and inclusive economic growth, climate change, and management of mass human displacement.

“Whoever believes the problems of this world can be solved by isolationism and protectionism is making a tremendous error,” she said.

Merkel, a conservative who has been embraced by progressives internationally after opening Germany’s borders to refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, at some political cost, is said to have chosen the port city of Hamburg for the G20 to send a message of openness. It is also the city where she was born before her father, Horst Kasner, a Lutheran pastor, moved the family to the bombed-out ruins of communist East Germany after World War 2, to help shore up the ministry in East Germany.

Openness, generosity, and humanity are good themes for this G20. They have never been more needed.

As the Syria crisis enters its seventh year, civilians continue to bear the brunt of a conflict marked by unparalleled suffering, destruction and disregard for human life, with 13 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. In East Africa, 25 million people are suffering from drought and conflict.

The world is experiencing displacement on a scale never seen before.

At this G20, we would hope that the world’s big economies make a big commitment in response to the level of human suffering we are witnessing, with a major funding boost to help those suffering from famine and conflict. But we also need to recognise that the humanitarian model no longer works. We know that the average refugee will spend 17 years in exile. Short-term responses are now quickly overwhelmed.

We need the international community to commit to multi-year funding that builds refugee resilience and supports the national development of the host state so that we can shelter those who are in need. We need to broker peace where there is conflict, invest in development, support good leadership, and on climate change, reduce emissions.

As recent elections in Austria, Holland, and France have shown political courage will be rewarded, at the polls and in the judgment of history. In France, Marine Le Pen boasted “I am the anti-Merkel”. But Le Pen lost while Merkel strides the international stage.

Coming only weeks after a G7 which exposed deep divisions between the US and other western countries on climate change, trade and migration, there has been an unusually tense atmosphere in the lead up to this week’s summit.

At the G7 leaders were invited to Taormina by their Italian hosts not just because of its beauty but because Sicily is 300 miles from the Libyan coast, the frontline in Europe’s battle over migration. Sicily is the island to which tens of thousands of people from Africa are heading, in their quest to escape poverty, war, and religious conflict. More than 1300 have drowned so far this year while trying to make the perilous crossing from north Africa.

Italy, which expects to take in 200,000 refugees in 2017, had hoped the G7 summit would end with a bold statement that the world, and not just individual nations, had a responsibility for the refugee crisis, but the US opposed the draft statement acknowledging migrants’ rights, the factors driving refugees and their positive contribution.

In the wake of this failure, several refugees spoke about the invidious choices that refugees face. The words of Numa Touray, a 17-year-old refugee from Gambia, have stayed with me: “I knew the journey would be dangerous but if you have the lion behind you and the sea in front of you, you take the sea. I was 100 per cent certain to die at home, 100 per cent certain to die in Libya, and thought I had a 50/50 chance to survive the sea.”


Tim Costello is Chief Advocate at World Vision Australia

Published in The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Canberra Times, Saturday 8 July, 2017 


Picture: Children at a playground set up for South Sudanese refugees at a World Vision Child Friendly Space (CFS) in northern Uganda. As of July 2017, a total of 22,531 children and young people were benefiting from 27 CFSs located in Adjumani, Yumbe and Arua districts.

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