Syrian Refugee Crisis: How We Should Respond

THE TIDAL WAVE of people fleeing the barbarism of ISIS in Syria is a global challenge, requiring a response on a global scale; competition to “out-compassion” each other in Australia is tasteless, pointless, and is a breathtaking hypocrisy from those who opened the asylum seeker floodgates and oversaw hundreds of deaths. This country is already the most generous refugee resettler in the world. Generosity, not pointless excess, is what is needed now.

I’m sure this is not the last time we will talk about the Syrian refugee crisis; this issue might only now have ripened to the point our government — and others with the capacity to help — is obliged to urgently fashion some kind of response, but the problem is going to take a long time to be fixed: if it ever can be.

The hope for mature and rational public discussion on this to some extent seems pointless, for already there appears to be a bidding war between political interests in Canberra to “out-compassion” each other; I’m not going to buy into that today, because even though restraint and responsibility are in short supply in certain quarters in normal circumstances, the tsunami of people fleeing Syria right now constitutes extraordinary circumstances indeed.

I want to share today’s article by one of my favourite columnists, Miranda Devine from the Daily Telegraph in Sydney; not for the first time, Miranda has made many of the points I would have made, and her words this morning serve aptly as a starting point for our discussion now.

I was listening to a debate on the Syria crisis in the car last night on 3AW on my way home; listeners seemed divided over how many refugees Australia should put its hand up to resettle, with targets nominated by callers ranging from 10,000 to 50,000.

My immediate thought was that there can’t be an open-ended obligation attached to this: per head of capita (and whether the chardonnay-swilling bleeding hearts from the Left care to acknowledge it or not), Australia already resettles the most refugees each year of any Western country; we have spent $13 billion on the asylum seeker/boat/people smuggler nightmare restarted in 2008 by the Rudd government and the Communist Party Greens; and it must be remembered that despite the vast majority of arrivals by sea having now been processed under the Abbott government’s stricter policies on boat arrivals (with many found to be refugees, and allowed to stay in Australia), the obligation Australia was exposed to between 2008 and 2013 has not as yet been fully discharged either.

It is with that last point in mind that I think the rush to devise and finalise “a quota” now stinks of expediency and political posturing; why not take an initial 10,000 Syrian refugees now — above the existing refugee quota for the current year in the first instance — and then reassess the situation?

The humanitarian crisis in Syria will not be over this week, or next month, or even next year; there is no need to charge at it like bulls at the proverbial gate. A gradated response allows flexibility to respond as the situation develops, and decent folk will have no objection, I’m sure, to additional tranches of 10,000 Syrians seeking asylum being taken in by our government in staggered intakes if need be.

It’s not about hedging bets, or trying to minimise the impost, or cruelty, or any of the other irresponsible bullshit the Left will accuse the Abbott government of however it responds — for them, no conservative government can be permitted to be seen as having exuded warmth, or compassion, or generosity. It doesn’t fit within their diatribes. And in this case, they would be better off saying nothing if their standard anti-Liberal Party rhetoric is the best they can do.

Unlike some — and I know this will be controversial — I have no problem with an emphasis on Christian refugees shaping of any contribution Australia makes.

The reason is fairly straightforward, and Miranda covers off on it today: bluntly, Christians in Syria are being persecuted; they are a minority in both Syria and the Middle East generally that ISIS has made a target; they form the overwhelming bulk of the body of displaced persons; and in terms of commonality with those we offer new lives and fresh starts to, it seems a no-brainer that Christian Syrians already share more in common with our way of life than the warring Muslim factions determined to drive them away.

There is also the matter of the Muslim countries around Syria, who notoriously refuse to take refugees; there are stable, first-world countries in that region: if there are displaced Muslims requiring asylum there is no reason Saudi Arabia, or Qatar, or the UAE and others can’t resettle them.

One could also say the same of Islamic countries closer to Australia that any refugees must pass near or through to get to Australia: Indonesia. Malaysia. These are not bad places. They offer a better way of life to Syrian Muslims than the battle zone their motherland has become. And they must help.

But if Australia is to take more than any initially-agreed quota, why can’t we be a little more creative than simply bringing people in, dumping them on the outskirts of Sydney and Melbourne, and paying them welfare?

For one thing, Australia’s regional centres have experienced population drift to the major coastal centres for decades; a higher number of resettlements could be justified on the basis those people were allocated to various country towns and required to remain for an initial period, much like British immigrants who arrived under the “£10 Pom” scheme did after the second world war until the early 1970s.

For another, the government has a huge regional development plan that when initiated will call for dozens of infrastructure and nation-building projects to be undertaken and completed — dams, roads, agriculture, and so forth — and whilst I would never advocate using immigrant labour at a discount to legislated rates of pay, the point is that some of these people could be offered employment working on some of those projects.

In some cases, these will take years to build. It’s another way those who come here might be able to help build a true bond with their new country — in much the way European immigrants built the Snowy Mountains Scheme, for example.

But what we don’t need is do-gooders and other bullshit artists merely prescribing some ridiculous and arbitrary intake figure, well above the country’s capacity to pay for it, that is all about making the statement but which is inevitably a political football that ends up buried in the mud at the end of the paddock.

It rankles me that some of these cretinous armchair oracles claim that as a “rich” country, we have endless capacity to help “the displaced citizens of the world:” we’re not, and we don’t.

Australia’s wealth is largely buried beneath the ground — it’s the same base of resources the same do-gooder idiots want to wind back and then terminate the use of — and beyond that, whilst we have a reasonably robust service economy, the same people want to stifle its development by curtailing free trade agreements that would allow us to build service exports. It’s a disingenuous do-gooder argument at best.

I don’t dispute — nay, I heartily agree — that Australia must play its part in resettling the human tidal wave of displaced people that is emanating from the Middle East.

But it has to be paid for, too; and just as Australia’s “wealth” is a subjective concept in some quarters — convenient for arguments such as this, but something to be derided and subverted depending on the circumstances — so too is the capacity of government to provide a factor that must be considered.

Already, through external forces, budget sabotage and utter mismanagement by the ALP — compounded by that party’s refusal to allow the continuing government to redress the damage — Australia is borrowing a billion dollars per week just to enable the existing functions of government to go on.

Just as Australia should make an effort to help resettle some of those fleeing from Syria, that effort most certainly shouldn’t obligate us to the tune of another ten to fifteen billion dollars; on one level, we can’t afford it. But on another, and to the extent we take some of these people in, the effort should be reasonable, modest, and — not unimportantly — calibrated within a justifiable amount of money.

I’m going to leave it there for now; my understanding is that federal Cabinet is meeting as I publish this to determine the government’s response, and I think it prudent to wait until we see that before going too much further.

Encouragingly, deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek was making broadly supportive-sounding noises on Melbourne radio this morning in the context of a rumoured one-off intake of 13,500 Syrians seeking resettlement: this column will acknowledge any constructive work on the part of the ALP in the course of this issue developing.

It is to be hoped the tentative utterances of reason from Plibersek prove representative of the wider ALP response. I have no faith the grub who is her so-called “leader” will do anything other than play grimy, petty politics with what is literally a life and death matter for so many: after all, he couldn’t even get the gender right of the dead child carried off a beach in the photo that has, rightly or wrongly, come to represent in people’s minds the terrible nature of this crisis.

And finally, a personal word.

Many years ago I dated a Syrian girl for a few months; it (obviously) never went anywhere — partly, it has to be said, because I wasn’t Syrian — but I got a first-hand look at Syrian people at that time. They are good people, if a little insular (or perhaps just wary) in our world; very generous, very decent, and they take very seriously their part in what has become their world as they make their way in Australian society.

Whilst I don’t like the idea of Muslim asylum seekers being included in the resettlement quota — on the entirely reasonable grounds I have outlined — I am very keen to see a solution that includes however many Syrian Orthodox people it is agreed we should take being made welcome here.

Just as we have much to offer them, they have much to offer us. And provided both sides of that equation are observed, I see no reason why an initial 10,000 of them can’t be offered asylum as soon as logistical considerations — and the bona fides of the people concerned — can be sorted out.

We will revisit this issue over the coming days and weeks, as appropriate.