As worldwide displacement hits an all time high due to wars, conflict and persecution, the Australian government recently highlighted its record of stopping the boats and being the 3rd biggest resettler of refugees globally.
This record, however, is overshadowed by growing concern in light of our legal obligations as signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Australia’s border protection policy continues to be fraught with grave concerns about our treatment of asylum seekers, the secrecy and lack of transparency of detention centres. Its premise of combating people-smuggling by turning boats back or stopping them continues to be criticised as being short-sighted by prominent experts. David Manne, Executive Director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, for example comments that it, “does nothing to address the desperate circumstances that lead people to risk their lives at sea”. Professor Siracusa, Professor of Human Security and International Diplomacy from RMIT, has not only said, in a channel 9 television interview, that “stopping slave traders doesn’t stop what’s going on in the slave business” but has also said that there is the view that Australia has an “apartheid regime when it comes to refugees”. The government, however, upholds its border protection model as exemplary.
It is evident that Australia’s UNHCR resettlement program in accepting refugees is important in the mix of solutions to resolve refugee situations. Its involvement in the program since 1977 has consistently enabled Australia to be ranked as one of the top three resettlement countries in the world. In 2014 Australia accepted 11,570 resettled refugees which made it first on a per capita basis. However, this discretionary process provides protection to only a limited number of refugees each year and as UNHCR points out, “resettlement needs routinely far outstrip numbers of places made available” and that “Fewer than one per cent of refugees will ever be able to access a resettlement place.”
The global system has already been under incredible pressure. By the end of 2014, 59.5 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide, an unprecedented highest annual increase in a single year with 8.3 million persons more than the year before (51.2 million). In the context of the current crisis, the inequitable level of international support furthermore exacerbates the unequal burden to assist refugees. The recent number of refugees and migrants (up to 3,000 a day) arriving on the Greek Islands and moving through the Western Balkans and Hungary placed severe pressure on the capacities of Greece, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia, with thousands of people camping rough without shelter, sanitation, food and water. As of yesterday, it was reported that the flow of refugees continues unabated into Hungary.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s 2010 call for greater equity in assisting displaced people continues to reverberate as developing countries still host a greater percentage of the world’s refugees. UNHCR’s 2014 Global Trends Report shows that two decades ago, developing regions were hosting about 70 per cent of the world’s refugees. By the end of 2014, this proportion had risen to 86 per cent (12.4 million persons). In 2014, Turkey became the largest refugee-hosting country worldwide, with 1.59 million refugees, followed by Pakistan (1.51 million), Lebanon (1.15 million), the Islamic Republic of Iran (982,000), Ethiopia (659,500), and Jordan (654,100). Australia was 22nd in the list of countries hosting refugees in 2014 as it recognised or resettled 14350 refugees. This was 0.43 per cent of the global total. The top 5 refugee-hosting countries combined hosted 41 per cent of all refugees.
So, can Australia, an affluent country, continue to do the little that it is doing in the context of a growing worldwide humanitarian crisis?
As a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations, a mass exodus of individuals and entire families to seek asylum continues. UNHCR reported that by the end of 2014, the Syrian Arab Republic was the world’s top source country of refugees, overtaking Afghanistan and Somalia as the third-largest source country and that these three countries together accounted for 7.6 million or more than half (53%) of all refugees.
Whilst all refugees are among the most vulnerable people in the world, refugee women and their children are at even greater risk, particularly if they have become victims of gender-based violence, exploitation and abuse. In 2014, the proportion of refugee children increased from 46 per cent in 2011 to 51 per cent and the proportion of refugee girls and women increased from 48 per cent in 2011 to 50 per cent in 2014.
As Prime Minister Abbott pledges to do “the right thing” and help the UN respond to the humanitarian crisis gripping Europe by taking more refugees from war-ravaged Syria, it is good to see the government respond to the increasing number of Syrian refugees, who are 49% of the people arriving in Europe. However, PM Abbott has added that any increase in refugees from the Middle East would come under existing quotas that are fixed at 13,750 this year and next year, before it is increased to 18,770 by 2019. Moreover, it has been flagged that Christians and other minority groups would be given preference.
We have the capacity to do much more than we are doing, and this is clearly reflected in the increasing calls being made by politicians on all sides. Coalition backbencher Ewan Jones has suggested between 30,000 and 50,000 Syrians to be given Australian protection. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has called for an additional $100m in aid and a one-off intake of 10,000 refugees on top of this year’s planned humanitarian intake. The Greens are proposing 20,000.
Discriminating amongst the desperate on the basis of religion is alarming. The rights to freedom of religion and belief, and to freedom from discrimination on the basis of religion are highly valued in multi-cultural Australia, and are protected by Section 116 of the Commonwealth Constitution.
As religion encompasses so many dimensions, including a personal belief system, and is a cultural force binding a community together, religious discrimination has a deep exclusionary impact upon individuals and communities. Indeed a refugee, as the 1951 Refugee Convention spells out, is, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Choosing to discriminate refugees on a religious basis perpetuates their fear and exclusion.
It is ironic that Christianity is being emphasised as a criteria, as our delayed and factored response on how best to help refugees in this current crisis falls far short of the good Samaritan principle.
This crisis challenges our humanity. A compassionate and principled leadership founded on valuing all human beings needs to be the only response for all refugees, desperate for a chance to start again. As a middle power, Australia needs to act urgently and be a major player in the long term international equitable solution to the exodus of refugees.