John Menadue. What has happened to the 11,990 Syrian refugees?

Feb 4, 2016

After telling us for months that Australia would not take additional Syrian refugees, Tony Abbott announced on September 9 last year that the government had ‘agreed to settle 12,000 Syrian refugees … one of the world’s largest (intakes) to date’. We were told that the first refugees would arrive by Christmas and the 12,000 by June 2016. State governments, community groups and churches then geared up to respond.

But to date, after five months, only about ten Syrian refugees have arrived.

We should contrast our performance with the generous and efficient response of the Canadians. The Canadian government website reveals that at the 31 January 2016, 15,157 Syrian refugees had landed in Canada since November 4. That number of arrivals was made up of 8,767 government-assisted refugees, 1,049 blended Visa-Office-Referred refugees and 5,341 privately sponsored refugees. By the end of January 165 Canadian communities had welcomed Syrian refugees. There had been 57 government organised flights.

In Canada, at the 31st December 2015 there were 13,881 applications in progress, with 6,381 applications finalised but the refugees had not yet travelled to Canada.

For this generous and efficient response the Canadians put us to shame. Why? I suggest there are several reasons.

The first and most important reason is the political leadership and will of the new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. What a contrast with Abbott, Morrison, Dutton and now Turnbull.

The second is that our ‘Immigration’ Department has been changed dramatically and is no longer adequately equipped to handle a movement such as this with expedition and efficiency. Senior and experienced people with expertise in the area have left the department. The ‘settlement’ function which has been so critical for managing newcomers to Australia has been transferred out of the Department of Immigration to the Department of Social Services. Furthermore, just as our foreign policy has become securitized, so our refugee and immigration programs have been overwhelmed by border control and border protection. We even have a military style Operation Sovereign Borders. The Department is not really involved in nation-building any more. It is about border control and we saw an example of this in the Melbourne fiasco late last year. Once upon a time Australia had a well-managed ability to move people quickly who are in need of resettlement. Ministers Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton have participated in the crippling of that ability.

The third and a more specific problem is the delay in the large backlog of cases that are waiting ASIO checking. This is despite the fact that ASIO in recent years has received a substantial increase in personnel and other resources. Checking is necessary but the fear of foreigners that has been promoted by ministers has effectively thrown the weight of effort into control rather than a humanitarian response. There are always risks in the speedy movement of large numbers of desperate people but in the past we have been able to manage that efficiently – and reasonably quickly. And the lesson of terrorism in France and elsewhere in recent months is that it is mostly young people born to earlier arrivals rather than new refugees that have turned to terrorism.

Canada has shown us a better way to help Syrian people in great need. The Canadian Government web site puts it this way. ‘Resettling refugees is a proud and important part of Canada’s humanitarian tradition. It reflects our commitment to Canadians and demonstrates to the world that we have a shared responsibility to help people who are displaced and persecuted.’

In Australia we also used to have that humanitarian tradition of shared responsibility to help people who are displaced and persecuted. The Coalition and the ALP are trashing our proud tradition.

We should make amends by increasing our Syrian intake to 25 000 and really applying ourselves to the job. The Canadians have shown us the way.


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