John Menadue. Refugees, the community and civil society

Sep 12, 2015

It has been thrilling to see the warm response of many people, and particularly the Germans, to refugees fleeing from war-torn Syria and other countries. Over ten million people have been forced to flee their homes in Syria.

Pope Francis has appealed to every Catholic parish, religious community or sanctuary in Europe to take in a family of refugees, saying that he would set the example by hosting two families in parishes inside the Vatican. With 20,000 or more Catholic ‘places’ in Europe, that could provide sanctuary for 200,000 refugees on the basis of 10 Syrians per parish.

To undertake a little more arithmetic, the Australian Catholic church has 1,200 parishes. If each parish took 10 people for say up to six months, that would provide a home and sanctuary for 12,000 Syrians.

The Catholic bishop of Port Pirie, Greg O’Kelly, has taken up the offer of the Mayor of Port Pirie to take 20 or 30 families and house them in Catholic premises in his diocese.

In addition of course there are many more Christian churches that could provide places. I am sure that Muslim communities and the community generally would also respond very generously. Maybe Hillsong will respond.

Not only would community action provide help for people in great need, it would work as an antidote to the poison that has been spread about ‘illegals’ over many years.

But for the community to respond effectively there must be government leadership in shaping the framework for community participation. Why should we leave most of the implementation to governments in housing new arrivals in old army barracks?

We could draw on past experience with the Community Refugee Resettlement Scheme which grew out of the Indochina resettlement program. Churches, community-based groups and others supported the resettlement of refugees and their integration and participation in the mainstream community. As with all programs, there were teething problems but the scheme was reviewed and could be adapted to meet present needs. At its height, it proved to be a very practical program that ensured a nimble response to a mass outflow. Many people came together and opened their homes and hearts to support people in a new life. Our rich and vibrant modern day society grew out of such a citizen-led initiative.

Unfortunately, a lot of the experience in settlement and nation building in the immigration department has been lost. Further, the Abbott government has moved settlement services to the Department of Human Services (Scott Morrison) whilst visa issue remains with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. This will make for messy implementation and turf warfare.

We need a task force drawn from key departments and former Immigration Department officials who have left. With them has gone a great deal of experience, expertise and institutional memory.

The present minister, Peter Dutton, will need to show more skill than he has shown to date.

A regular contributor to this blog, Arja Keski-Nummi, a former First Assistant Secretary in charge of refugee policy and operations, in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship will write later about the framework that I have briefly outlined in this blog.

There is a challenge before us all to be better.

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