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The Near Impossibility of Finding a Better Way to Help Refugees

The humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian conflict has dominated world news for days now, as thousands of people fleeing persecution try to get to a number of European nations. Some of these nations have pledged to contribute to addressing the resettlement issue, some with more meaningful contributions than their regional neighbours. It is as if there was no preparation for, or expectation of a mass people movement brought about by the conflict.

But as with every other refugee situation, this is a global situation which needs a worldwide response. But that does not mean that individual nations cannot make their own decisions about how many refugees to aid. The point is though, that all need to help. This includes Australia.

But it seems that Tony Abbott does not want to help. His language so far this week indicates that he has decided there is effectively a ‘no vacancy’ sign shining brightly for the world’s most desperate people to see. As a result, it is now laid bare for all to see that ‘stopping the boats’ is not about cutting down the number of asylum seeker deaths which happen at sea, but a far more sinister attempt to appeal to the crowd that thinks we should not accept outsiders in almost any case. And in terms of situations where a country should help people, this current event is one of the clearest examples of when to do so.

It has been heartening to see at least a couple of members of the Coalition saying publicly that we need to help some of the Syrian asylum seekers. The most striking and also highest ranking example being minister and National Party MP, Barnaby Joyce. The Agriculture Minister is someone who is known for a bit of a dislike of foreign capital in terms of farmland. The other example being Craig Laundy, an MP from a marginal seat with ethnic diversity, whom you would expect to have a more sympathetic view.

Leaving aside abolishing offshore processing of asylum seeker claims, there are three things which could be done in terms of refugee policy in this country, with an eye to playing our part in dealing with this emergency. However, it is likely none of these policies will be enacted, at least until a change of government. The three main options are a significant increase in the yearly quota, to a number closer to 30,000 or above, a temporary spike in the number of refugees we accept, or a more flexible policy which focuses on helping people from current and emerging conflicts.

A permanent increase to Australia’s humanitarian intake would help absorb some of the strain caused by the displacement of people across the globe. The increase would have to number in the thousands to have any meaningful impact and would have to be coupled with greater regional and global cooperation on the matter. This is also the least politically palatable option, which is a real shame.

One of the easiest things the Coalition Government could have done is said to the Australian people that we need to accept a temporary spike in our refugee intake. It is a small fringe element within our community who would not accept such a reasonable policy prescription. A temporary spike could last a year, or a number of years and that increase would solely be made up of refugees who have been forced out of Syria. Again though, the problem is too big to be overlooked at a regional and international level, and that is the hardest part of the equation.

A more permanent way of contributing to the management of this and other refugee events which may emerge over time is to gear our almost our entire humanitarian intake toward managing the flow of asylum seekers from current and emerging conflicts. This is a flexible approach which can be managed as new movements of displaced people occur. It also largely removes the politics as it would be impossible to sensibly argue that those we would be helping are not the exact definition of a refugee. Yet again though, world thinking needs to be aligned.

It seems however that we are destined for regressive and repressive thinking domestically, at least for the time being. And our wilful inaction, coupled with the same dastardly inaction from other countries, will mean people who are so obviously suffering are still dying at sea.

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