The Australian government announcement of 12,000 additional permanent places for Syrian refugees is a reasonable scale of response, if implemented the right way.
Taken together with the existing program of 13,750 refugees, the new program constitutes a manageable 13% of the planned 2015–16 migration intake of 193,485 permanent visas. It is only 4% of the 632,000 people already in the country temporarily with work rights.
The fact that the places are permanent is essential. There is no reason to believe that Syrian refugees will be able to return to their home country in the foreseeable future.
However, the lack of detail in the Prime Minister’s announcement suggests that the decision was taken very quickly and in the absence of any planning or readiness for action.
For example, it is not clear over what period the 12,000 will be taken. To have immediate impact, the resettlement initiative should begin quickly and be completed within the current financial year.
Implementation is vital.
Fifteen years ago, the Howard government arranged for the emergency evacuation of 4000 Kosovars from Europe to Australia.
The tipping point for intervention in that crisis was television coverage of masses of Kosovars stranded on a European border, unable to return home or to move forward.
The evacuation was arranged in a matter of weeks as a result of Herculean efforts by a small task force in the then Department of Immigration. That task force, with government backing, found ways to accelerate all the usual requirements to respond to an emergency situation.
The television images of a small boy washed up on a European shore have been the tipping point in Australian attitudes to the unimaginably large a crisis of displacement from Syria.
It is surely possible for Australia to not only match what it was able to do 15 years ago, but to do even better in relation to a much larger crisis.
There is no doubt that quick implementation presents significant challenges. However, sometimes a crisis is big enough to warrant imaginative arrangements outside the norm. A whole of government approach, including the cooperation of security agencies, would be necessary to speed up all of the required processes. It should be possible for a forward-leaning Australian Public Service to do this. State and Territory government help will also be important.
It is surely possible to devise a set of arrangements that evacuates very quickly smaller numbers of people in the greatest need of relocation, initially on a temporary basis, with later conversion to permanent status. The numbers could be ramped up to 12,000 over the balance of the financial year.
It is a pity that the announcement contained the sting in the tail of a focus on resettlement of minorities, such as Christians. It is not clear what message this is designed to send. There is no doubt that threatened minorities should be part of the expanded intake. However, it is invidious for a multicultural society like Australia to select refugees primarily based on religious or cultural backgrounds. This should not form the basis for our choices.
The advice of UNHCR should be taken in prioritising those who could most benefit from Australian resettlement.
Some commentators say that taking more people would make no difference to the total problem. It would certainly make a big difference for those who came to Australia. Like the Howard government’ s Kosovar exercise, it would also show solidarity with those countries which are making even larger efforts and set an example to others to do more.
It is clear that resettlement places will not be available for the 11 million Syrians who have been displaced, but greater resettlement will certainly ease some pressures.
In this context, the decision to provide an additional $44 million for refugee agencies is welcome. Increased global contribution to the underfunded programs of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is essential to provide better living conditions for those Syrians who cannot be resettled and stabilise them in safety in current locations.
Peter Hughes is a Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Visitor, Regulatory Institutions Network, ANU. He was formerly Deputy Secretary, Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
9 September 2015