The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Where Are We At?

Fred Johnston

To put the largest refugee crisis since World War II into perspective, the number of refugees that flee Syria to other countries would fill around 50 MCGs. If you have ever visited the massive cauldron of Australian sport, it puts into perspective the magnitude of the plight faced by those who have had their lives irrevocably changed by a conflict where Australians have been involved.

Amid the ongoing conflict between Assad´s regime and the various rebel groups, along with the support of numerous countries on all sides, the humanitarian crisis has forced a spectrum of responses from the West. For instance, the remarks and measures of Germany´s leader to the issue have been drastically different when compared to that of the United States.

In late August 2017, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel claimed the peak of the crisis in 2015 was an “extraordinary situation” that just “happened every once in awhile in a country´s history.” She added it was “an emergency we all, including the people seeking asylum should never face once again.” Compassion and empathy are consistently exemplified through her words, even after tragic incidents like the Berlin Christmas market are perpetrated in her own country.

The chancellor also condemned the effects of the EU Dublin regulation, which rules that asylum seekers should be taken in by the EU member state they first arrived in. Merkel criticised the Dublin system by saying that it is “no more reliable,” adding that it leaves “countries such as Greece and Italy unable to cope with the burden placed on them” by this regulation.

Trump, on the other hand, made his intentions clear back in January. He memorably banned the access for Syrian refugees to the US, then reduced the ban following pressure to reverse his decision. Nonetheless, both he and Pence had made their intentions known previously. In a 60 Minutes interview during the 2016 Presidential Race, Pence declared, “in Indiana, we suspended the Syrian refugee program…we have no higher priority than the safety and security of the people of this country, and Donald Trump.” Such ruthless claims have proven to be a precursor for the government´s endeavours since taking office last year.

What has been the reaction from the Australian government? In 2015, the Prime Minister Tony Abbott decided to allow 12,000 refugees from conflict in Syria and Iraq to resettle in predetermined areas of the country. Abbott´s initial allocation was to be 4,500, but he felt compelled to increase the number after he had been moved by “the horrific imagery of that little boy washed up on a beach in Turkey”, referring to the tragic story of Alan Kurdi, after his family´s escape from Syria ended in disaster.

Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten believed the figure tabled by Abbott was too small. In response to the Prime Minister´s announcement, Shorten claimed “we must do better than this…I want to ensure this includes more refugees from Syria.” Giving the arbitrary figure of 27,000 may have seemed well thought out. Yet, without clutching at straws too much, this could also have been the likely response from the Opposition Leader leading into an election year, gathering support and approval rating points.

Federal Liberal senator Cory Bernardi had a drastically different opinion of the Abbott and Shorten. “We have extremist elements at work in this country,” he argued, while on national radio. “Why would we risk bringing in more to add to their ranks, even potentially, and bear the financial and social burden that comes with that?” Such comments show the vast range of political opinions on the issue should come as no surprise, and they perhaps reflect greater society´s approach to such a poignant issue.

Regarding security, the ruling Coalition government can argue their decision to undertake stringent processing of Syrian refugees was the correct one. Earlier this year, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton boasted, “the Government used intelligence from security allies, including the United States”, to make the decision to refuse entry to some 500 over a 12 month period. Dutton continued, “they will be good Australians they will work hard and they will educate our children – they are the migrants we want coming to our country”, showing that the best possible outcome can be reached without security being compromised.

The security process is not without derision. It was discovered from the 18,563 refugees admitted in the second half of 2015, 78 percent identified themselves as Christian, which shows preferential behaviour. Lyle Shelton, managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, justified this by saying “Christians have been copping the brunt of persecution at the hands of ISIS.” While Elaine Pearson, the head of Human Rights Watch in Australia, reputed, “In both Syria and Iraq, Muslims have overwhelmingly borne the brunt of most of the atrocities by ISIS and by the Assad regime.” Regardless of the notions behind such actions, a secular society like Australia´s has a moral obligation to reject such prejudice.

Another concern is that such rigorous vetting could fuel global radicalisation. Amnesty International´s global chief Salil Shetty warned, “When people are fleeing from Syria, from Islamic State and radical extremists, taking such huge risks, if you push them back to those countries, what exactly is the impact of that? You are radicalising them.” This exemplifies the balancing act taking place between security and humanitarian obligations for Australia.

Syria´s conflict has resulted in millions of displaced people attempting to find refuge in countries who inadvertently have an obligation to help due to their involvement in the Middle East. Such a serious situation requires pensive decision making from the West, and there have been varied responses from both within the Australian politics and throughout the Western world.

Security may be an issue in the government´s decision-making. If, however, the reports from UN investigator Ben Emmerson are true, that “little evidence” exists proving ISIS and other groups utilise refugee flows, then perhaps government decisions on the issue should be revised to allowed for an increase in refugee settlements.

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