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Rob Idol looks into the Aylan Kurdi tragedy and the Syrian refugee crisis, and explains how Australia can no longer afford to sit on her hands.
The smallest coffins are the heaviest. These harrowing words hung over the memorial for Aylan, Ghalib and Rehanna Kurdi this week. While you may or may not be familiar with the names, I wager that the confronting image of three-year-old Aylan, face down, brushed by the waves on a Turkish beach will remain tattooed on your brain, as it has mine, ever since it appeared on our Facebook feed or via a preferred news outlet. Impossible to ignore. Aylan, his brother Ghalib and his mother Rehanna all perished while trying to escape their war-torn homeland and reach the friendlier shores of Greece. The image of a young boy in his red t-shirt and little sneakers dead on a tourist beach caught the world’s attention.
In a world where the terms “illegals”, “refugees”, “queue jumpers” or “asylum seekers” are bandied around corridors of influence for political gain, In a world where those like Aylan are seldom labelled what they are: human beings.
Our official response? We might help. Even more disturbing, was PM Tony Abbott’s personal view, as he suggested that this tragedy would have been avoided if the rest of the world did what he did and stopped the boats. In his head, and consequently in the heads of many people in this country, little Aylan is just another number. He’s a dehumanised statistic used to justify our sickening approach to the issue of asylum seekers. At a time where we should be doing everything in our power to ease an unfathomable global humanitarian crisis, instead we pat ourselves on the back for our cleverness in building a naval gate to stop it becoming our problem. A gate that may have stopped people from drowning at sea, but has done nothing to stop them from dying.
In fairness to Abbott, he dispatched the Immigration Minister to Geneva to discuss how we can help more, including taking in more Syrian refugees under humanitarian visas; not without pointing out that this would be in addition to our already “generous” contributions to the issue, of course. Whilst I applaud the move, I can’t help but think that the dire reality of this situation hasn’t quite hit home yet.
We need to build on this. We need to remove the politics from this issue and attack it in rigid black-and-white. In the same way that we so easily find bipartisanship and cooperation when we are going out to fight a war, we need to find the same when dealing with the inevitable effects of the same war.
The question is where to start.
Perhaps the reason that fear and xenophobia have been so easily promoted to the masses by the Government is because the realities are harder to address; we face very real logistical and economic issues that surrounding the asylum seeker debate.
Unfortunately, our approach has been solely focused on how to avoid the problem rather than how to solve it; so we are effectively starting from scratch.
To do this, we need to have a look at the statistics. Australia has taken in roughly 6500 refugees through official channels in each of the last two years, refugees classified as such by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (keeping in mind that we have also taken in a further 7500 via Special Humanitarian and onshore protection visas).
Germany has just pledged to increase their intake to 800,000 (a country one-twentieth the size of ours). Whilst we are congratulating ourselves for stopping the “queue jumpers”, maybe we need to stop and have a think about the “queue”. According to 2014 statistics, Australia hosts just 0.3% of the world’s refugees.
The list of countries that host more are staggering. We, one of the strongest economies in the world over the past decade, host so few that we barely make the top 50 (48). In 2014, we were hosting roughly 34,000 refugees in our country in total; compared to 1.6m in Pakistan or 850,000 in Iran. Ethiopia, Chad and Kenya significantly outrank us.
The reality is we need to drastically increase the number of refugees we take in through official channels, even if it is only on temporary visas. This will not only assist in stopping the boats but might actually help ensure the long-term well-being of those board the boats in the first place. There is understandable concern about the damage that such an increase could have on the currently fragile Australian economy. To put this in perspective, Australian taxpayers paid approximately $1.2 billion dollars last year to run our offshore detention centres. Offshore detention centres that currently house approximately 2000 asylum seekers. This equates to a cost of around $600,000 per asylum seeker per year. Those that are concerned about the economic impact of asylum seekers should be more concerned about the economic impact of governmental mismanagement of the problem.
I find it hard to believe that using that $1.2 billion dollars to set up a genuine refugee processing solution on the Australian mainland would not result in us being able to immediately increase our refugee intake. Not to mention the potential economic upside via the new jobs it would create to build, maintain and manage the infrastructure and systems for the solution. The economic argument simply doesn’t stack up.
Not that this should be an economic argument; this is an argument around the most basic of human rights: Survival. We have a moral obligation to contribute in a significant way to solving the largest global refugee crisis since the conclusion of WW2. We may have lost our opportunity to lead the way through our own fear and stubbornness, but we have not lost the opportunity to make a significant impact. We need to start looking at this now crisis as an opportunity, rather than a burden. It’s an opportunity for us to find a way to make it work, rather than grasping at inhumane policies designed to avoid the problem altogether.
That harrowing image of young Aylan dead on a beach, his only crime a desire to survive, has woke many to the facts. Like the famous image of Kim Phuc, one that for many defined the pointless horrors of the Vietnam War, Aylan’s tragic epitaph broke through the desensitisation. Abandoning of the willingness to ignore a serious human problem because it wasn’t on our doorstep. We need to demand action from our elected officials. The action needs to be a bipartisan, collaborative approach to finding immediate, practical and humane solutions.
For this issue is not one of political ideologies; it is not one that requires fearmongering. It is not about “illegals”; it is about genuine refugees. Genuine human beings like you and I that simply weren’t as lucky as we to be born where we were. We didn’t earn our position of luck; it was gifted to us and it is our responsibility to ensure that we pay it forward in any way that we can.
This is a global issue that all developed countries with a modicum of conscience need to help with. Not just help with, but take leadership in. Instead, we are leaving the heavy lifting to some of the poorest countries in the world. Like the famous Bible Parable, “The Widow’s Offering”, we are the rich, assuaging our guilt with a paltry contribution to a solution, while the poor are giving everything they have to help.
Thankfully, leaders of the developed world have started to put their hand up to help; while Australia’s hand stays wavering in it’s own pocket, We are better than that; it’s time for our hand to shoot up in collaboration, then turning outwards toward the countless many who need it’s comfort.