Abbott’s refugee crisis response makes sense
THE humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in southeastern Europe is one of the greatest mass movements of people seeking refuge of the past century. It’s on a scale we’ve seen only twice before – during World War II and at the time of the partition of India.
Some 7.6 million people have been displaced internally in Syria and almost four million refugees have fled from this blighted nation.
The reaction in Europe has been mixed – from Hungary, where a fence is being built on the border with Serbia; to Austria, where reactionary political pressure is capturing the debate; and Germany, where compassion has so far overwhelmed the far right.
Tony Abbott is taking the crisis seriously but he is refusing to raise expectations. As the Prime Minister said, we cannot solve the problems of the world but we can step up when a disaster thrusts itself into the global consciousness.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is in Europe where he will meet with officials from the International Organisation for Migration and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the former created in the wake of the displacement caused by World War II and the latter one of the first agencies established by the United Nations 65 years ago.
Mr Dutton, who is missing a sitting of Parliament, will hear first hand what is happening and what other nations are doing and will seek advice on how Australia can help. This is the prudent and sensible response.
Australia has already increased its intake of refugees from Iraq and Syria by 4400, one-third of our total program, and we are now holding open the prospect of doing more.
This is a genuine response to an understandably emotional reaction from the community.
Meanwhile, Labor’s Bill Shorten has pre-empted this with a proposal to give 10,000 Syrian refugees permanent settlement and provide an additional $100 million in aid for the displaced people in the region. Given the gravity of the situation, we should take Mr Shorten at face value and avoid any cynicism. While refugee groups and other charitable agencies are pressing for urgent responses to what’s happening on the ground it is best to hasten with care and consideration.
Two relatively recent reactions to humanitarian crises provide some guidance but no two situations are the same. In 1999, John Howard allowed in 4000 refugees from Kosovo but they were given temporary visas and offered no work rights. This presented its own set of problems when it came time for repatriation, moves that were challenged in the courts.
A decade earlier, Bob Hawke granted permanent residence to 42,000 Chinese, mainly students, after the Tiananmen Square massacre. This also had serious consequences because it opened a door for many thousands of other Chinese to join relatives under family reunion provisions.
Given the intractable nature of the Syrian civil war and the associated terrorist insurgencies, there are important questions about what kind of visas might be offered to any of the people in the UN camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and whether any refugees will be given work rights and be able to access family reunion.
There are also questions about just where refugees would be settled and how they would be supported. The methodical approach Mr Abbott is pursuing is the best way forward.
Above all, this should be a time for putting politics to one side and to resist the urge for our parliamentarians to outdo each other when responding to what’s happening in Europe.
It is easy and cost-free to put forward a number and say this should be Australia’s target for taking refugees from what is a bloody civil war. This war has been raging across northern Syria for three years and it is now, after it has spilled into Europe in dramatic fashion, that the world is being prompted to react. Australia should do its share but we should make sure what we do is measured and considered.