Josef Szwarc. Measuring our response to the refugee crisis of Syria and Iraq

Sep 7, 2015

“PM RESCUE MISSION” shouts the headline of the morning newspaper. My heart races with expectation that is immediately deflated by the first sentence: “Australian will open its doors to more Syrian refugees fleeing the troubled nation but won’t increase the overall humanitarian intake.”

The prospect of an increase was hinted at by a press release from the PM, Foreign Minister and Immigration Minister yesterday as the latter prepared to travel to Geneva for “urgent discussions with the UNHCR and other partners” to inform the government’s consideration of “what further significant contribution we can make through our Humanitarian Programme to resettle those affected by the conflict in Syria and Iraq.” It went on: “as a result of the Government’s success in stopping illegal boat arrivals to Australia, we are now in a position to take more refugees from offshore refugee camps.”

During the last week, particularly following the tragic deaths of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi and his mother and brother, a rapidly expanding body of federal and state politicians, non-governmental organisations (including my own) and members of the general public has been calling on the government to increase the number of refugees we accept who have fled and continue to flee the wars in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Various models are being suggested, in particular:

  • expanding the general resettlement program  – this was about 10,000 places in last financial year’s Humanitarian Program, with around 4,400 people from Syria and Iraq – the program is currently scheduled to be increased to 18,750 by 2018/19;
  • implementing a ‘safe haven program’ as was used to bring people from Kosovo (around 4000) and Timor (around 2000) when there were crises there;
  • expanding a model of community sponsored refugees, which is presently on a small scale (500 per year) pilot basis.

The calls have been for additional refugees from Syria to be permitted to settle here as part of an expended humanitarian program.  In rejecting this plea, the government states that “Australia, on a per capita basis, is the UNHCR’s leading nation for the permanent resettlement of refugees.” The PM has further claimed that Australia was “ahead of the curve” in allocating places specifically for people from Iraq and Syria last year.

The claims may be accurate but are also misleading as to the proportion of the world’s refugees Australia hosts and our relative ‘generosity.’  They might cause noses to twitch when tested on customers at the very tiny pub frequented by a fairly small number of people familiar with the complexities and mass of refugee data.

The government’s statements relate to the “resettlement” of refugees, a term that refers to the transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another country that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent settlement.  There are only around 30 countries which offer resettlement in conjunction with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), and in total the program places less than 100,000 people annually i.e.  a very small proportion of the 19.5 million refugees in the world at the end of 2014 (up from 16.7 million in 2013).

A number of countries have quite small resettlement programs but host large number of people recognised as refugees and asylum seekers who have applied to be recognised as refugees. For example:

  • Germany resettled around 4000 refugees in 2009-13 yet at the end of 2014 had over 200,000 refugees and 200,000 asylum seekers; as widely reported, it is anticipated that over 800,000 people will register for protection there this year;
  • Finland (population 5.4 million) resettled around 3000 during the same period and prepares to accept perhaps 25000- 30,000 asylum seekers this year – Finnish Prime Minister Sipila has said he will offer  a home he owns (not the one in which he usually lives) to house refugees.

Almost nine out of every 10 refugees (86 per cent) are in regions and countries considered economically less developed.  Of the 4 million Syrians who have been forced to flee, 1.8 million are in Turkey, 1.1 million are in Lebanon, 250,000 in Iraq, and 630,000 in Jordan. Refugees from other countries also generally reside in neighboring states such as Pakistan (2.6 million) and Kenya (650,000).

Australia’s contribution to assisting refugees by allowing them to settle here has not matched the increase in need. Over the last 20 years, government has planned to accept around 12,000 – 13,750 people each year (with the exception of 2012-13, when it was 20,000). In terms of our population and economic growth, this form of critical assistance has shrunk.

In the face of the highest level of global displacement since World War II, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Gutteres has stated that “for an unprecedented mass displacement, we need an unprecedented humanitarian response.” That provides a meaningful measure of Australia’s response.

Josef Szwarc is Manager, Research and Policy, Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture.


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