The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the international legal instrument to which Australia was an original signatory, contains a clause making clear that ‘The Contracting States shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin’.
It therefore seems curious that at least three Ministers, most notably the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, have made statements that echo the wording that Australia’s new program to take 12,000 Syrian refugees under UNHCR auspices announced on 9 September would give preference to ‘persecuted minorities’.
While on the surface this wording may sound consistent with the convention it has rightly raised a few eyebrows in the Australian Muslim community. In the Syrian context, does this reference indicate that Australia only considers ‘minorities’ as persecuted? Must members of the majority community in Syria have their claims under the convention downgraded?
The Syrian conflict is an increasingly multi-layered scene where violence on all sides has risen to catastrophic proportions. It began as a citizens’ revolt against a brutally repressive government but has since become a multi-layered civil war in which a bewildering range of Islamist forces have competed to lead the fight against an oppressive regime. All parties to the conflict have their backers outside Syria with some contributing military resupply, others turning a blind eye to movements into Syria of fighters and arms.
The first few years of the conflict saw fighting extend principally into Muslim majority areas of the country while many minority groups (among them Christians, Druze and Alawis) found shelter in areas under government control. Many Christians, in particular, became apologists for the regime in its efforts to project abroad its case that it was fighting the threat of ‘Islamic extremists’—a threat which was largely awakened as a result of the regime’s appetite right from the start for violence and repression as the answer to any form of dissent.
The latest dimension to the conflict in the past year is the rise of ‘Islamic State’ or ISIS—a spillover from the Sunni vs Shi`a conflict in Iraq and thus another product of the Allied contributors’ failure to appreciate the consequences of the Malaki government’s marginalisation of the Sunnis. It is in this phase that many Christians in the eastern provinces of Syria—mainly poor agricultural communities not affiliated to the main Orthodox or Catholic streams that had congregated in the regime-held centres to the west— found themselves trapped by ISIS’ lightening rise. In the early years of the conflict, however, undoubtedly the Muslim suburbs of the major cities bore the brunt of the regime’s violent onslaught which brought the major waves of refugee outflows still trapped in the camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. In this situation, only a strictly needs-based selection process would be warranted. Part of that assessment process needs to take into account whether communities could ever safely return but that is a question that hangs over virtually every community that once comprised Syria’s mosaic of cultures and faiths.
Picking favourites in this maze of tragic complexity is not a good idea. There is no Syrian community, ethnic or religious, which has avoided exposure to the violence that has washed across Syria. The pattern does not discriminate by race or creed. Even those who have found refuge in regime-held areas can suddenly find the lines have changed.
The Abbott government’s new program is an admirably generous development. It is regrettable, though, that it has to be ‘sold’ to one element of the Australian public (the Coalition’s right wing) by code-worded rhetoric suggesting that the UN convention can be manipulated in a way that would minimise Muslim participation. Everyone will need to be on board to make this program a success. There is every reason to believe that Syrians have the background, particularly educational, and motivation to make their new lives a success. It would be tragic to spoil the program’s chances by allowing it to be labeled as an exercise in selective compassion, thus alienating parts of the community whose cooperation is essential to making it a success.
Ross Burns was Australian Ambassador in Syria from 1984 to 1987.