Harrowing images and reports in our daily media give a human face to the grim words of the UN refugee agency: the number of men, women and children forcibly displaced by persecution, war and human rights violations is the largest on record. Nearly 60 million at the end of 2014 and greater since then.
That Australia can and should significantly and as a matter of priority increase its contribution to the alleviation of the plight of so many people in urgent need is accepted by the major political parties and in many sectors of civil society.
Last Wednesday the former Howard government immigration minister Philip Ruddock and Labor’s Chris Hayes called for Syrian refugees to be given safe haven visas to come temporarily to Australia, similar to the program adopted for refugees from Kosovo in 1999.
This is the start of a conversation we must have at the political level that responds humanely and with compassion to the plight of people caught up in a bitter war and whose lives are being irrevocably changed.
The fact is that in the past the Australian community and successive Australian governments have responded generously and with open hearts to people whose lives have been devastated by war. From the massive post war resettlement of people in the displaced persons camps of Europe, the substantial Indochinese resettlement programs of the 1980s and indeed our unbroken commitment since 1977 to have a planned refugee resettlement program. Our modern day society, the vibrancy of our cultural diversity and linguistic strengths are the rich by-products of these efforts.
Now, again we are challenged to look at the assistance we provide and see what more we can do. There may be significant differences of view about the scale, timing and means of the contribution we should make but that does not mean we should not start doing more now.
To begin with we should examine how we could provide immediate sanctuary through the safe haven visa arrangements for children and families affected by war as has been called for by Philip Ruddock and Chris Hayes. This could be done in coordination with the UNHCR, and community and faith based groups here in Australia. These groups could assist with both identification and hosting arrangements in Australia.
We are mindful this is not a solution – but a temporary measure to get people out of danger. It is abundantly clear that the war in the Middle East will be long and drawn out – we should also be considering how, once people are in safety, we can assist with a transition into permanent resettlement when after a period of time, it is clear that return is not a safe or realistic option. Only in this way will people whose lives have been so severely disrupted by the war start the process of healing and building a new future for themselves.
We believe the current Community Proposal Pilot whereby communities assist in hosting families and supporting them in their settlement pathway could be substantially expanded and adapted as both an on-shore as well as an offshore program. Frank Brennnan in his recent address to the University of Melbourne Law School has usggested a number of 7,000. This is a good start. Communities could for instance assist with visa application processes (on and off shore) including payment of visa application charges as well as settlement and community orientation processes. From the perspective of the government’s budget, the financial contributions of civil society would mean that it costs will be far less than the main resettlement program. Given this contribution we would strongly urge that such a program should not be counted as part of the established offshore humanitarian program that already responds to global refugee needs but as a unique response to an unfolding humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions. To do otherwise the government would be properly criticised as simply cutting public spending.
Our understanding is that there is strong support for such community involvement with many more potential nominations than places available in the current program.
Given the urgent situation in the Middle East and elsewhere, we are confident that Australians of all backgrounds would respond generously and enthusiastically as they have done on previous occasions when community involvement was sought.
Reports from other countries suggest similar strong support from civil society groups such as church congregations to provide practical assistance and support for displaced people from that conflict.
We know that we cannot be immune from global developments – action in this way will show we remain a generous and open hearted community willing to be there in tough times.
Arja Keski-Nummi is active on refugee policy and operations. She was formerly First Assistant Secretary, International and Refugee Division in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
Joseph Szwarc is Manager, Research and Policy, Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture.