Luke Fraser. True Blue

Sep 7, 2015

On Father’s day, anybody around the world lucky enough to have been woken by a happy young son (as I was) would have been hard-put not to have paused and thought of the image of the young Ardyl Kurdi, washed up lifeless on a beach.

Millions are again on the roads of Europe, running away, looking for safety and stability. Perhaps these are ‘the best of times and the worst of times’ that Dickens wrote of: The worst explains itself in Ardyl Kurdi. Perhaps we see the best in Angela Merkel and a relatively prosperous Germany planning to accommodate 800 thousand Syrian migrants. This will no doubt be resisted by many in that democracy, understandably: it comes with enormous risks. But perhaps Merkel’s pact recognises that Germany – the country of the Berlin airlift and a Marshall Plan beneficiary – still owes some debt of gratitude. If so, it is proposing to pay that debt out in spades. And in doing so it shames many of its neighbours, including countries whose own peoples were on the road not so long ago.

In Australia things are moving rapidly as politicians grasp at what the public might want and their own ideologies might cope with.

We have been here before. In 1999 I was a Defence infrastructure public servant charged with selling the surplus Brighton Camp Army Barracks outside Hobart. There were plans for a housing subdivision. Then the decision to grant safe haven to several thousand Kosovans came: the sale of the camp was suspended and work began preparing the camp for its new inhabitants.

During that process I was a minor cog in a big machine, but I recall the tone set informally from on high: “we aren’t using the term refugee”. “They won’t be staying”. “They won’t be encouraged near the community, or anywhere where the ‘immigration industry’ can get to them”. None of this was official, but the sense of it permeated the exercise.

Many Tasmanians overcame this callousness through their own acts of welcome and support for the Kosovans.

The first question for Australia to ask is what to do. John Menadue has proposed an intake of ten thousand. Presumably the UNHCR is equipped to establish bona fides at source and genuine refugees will be flown out. Just as in 1999, there are facilities around the country that could do a job. These are mechanical things.

The bigger question is how we choose to treat these people once they come.

Do we treat the arrivals in the way that the Human Rights Commission has witnessed boat people treated in our offshore detention centres?   Do we take all candy off the table? This appears to have been the subtle tone of the Kosovar exercise. That tone has lost all subtlety since and has become macabre. Will our Syrian refugees be given a Manus welcome for the sake of consistency? Or will we allow real people in real Australian communities the opportunity, organically, to show our better side and work with these people to help them along? This is the approach of some Scandinavian countries. Social media helps it along.

Australian communities never fail to make an effort for neighbours when houses are flooded or burnt down. They don’t wait for a form to be filled out, or to be coerced to assist. We celebrate that quality. We don’t lock flood and bushfire survivors up until new housing can be found for them.

New South Wales Premier Mike Baird has shown moral leadership by stating publicly that humanitarianism towards Syrian refugees must begin now.

Once the question of the size of intake and where they are housed is settled – as it surely will be soon by the Commonwealth – will we acquiesce to those political leaders who would be happy to parcel off the inmates in a flat-pack solution? It is passing ironic that we Australians pride ourselves on being laid back and friendly, but increasingly we deputise politicians and bureaucracy to shut out such elements from our lives.

Presumably smart people will eventually work out a longer-term solution for preserving something of a Syrian diaspora of scale that might one day return to revitalise that country. But for now, our immediate moral challenge seems to be allowing the Syrian intake to co-exist with us in a way that reflects our best selves.

Our laid-back selves. Not our Manus selves.

Luke Fraser is an infrastructure policy and investment specialist who contributes occasionally for Pearls and Irritations.

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