By Persephone Fraser

Recently, there has been good reason to discuss our attitude toward refugees. On the one hand, the Abbott government said it wouldn’t be increasing the number of overall intake of refugees in the wake of the Syrian crisis. Later, it said it would be taking in 12 000 Syrian refugees and offering significant financial support to UNHCR efforts in Europe and North African countries to facilitate refugees there. Then, reports arise surrounding the return of a Syrian man from Australian detention to the country where conflict is ongoing, and that Australian authorities in camps are under instruction to repeatedly inform detainees that they will not be settled in Australia and should return to their homes. We also have in resent developments the information that all remaining refugee claims in the Nauru detention centre will be processed this week, and that asylum seekers will be able to leave the camp and move around Nauru at any time as of Monday, (a contentious move but a sign of progress), but only in the lead up to the High Court hearing set to establish the legal legitimacy of offshore detention. While it looks contradictory or even duplicitous, that we offer support to Syrians publicly, but are privately working to return them, and that progress in the processing of refugee claims and changes to the nature of detention only take place in the wake of legal proceedings, on closer inspection the split in the governments behaviour is a conflict between what it intended to do, and what it has been forced to do.

In as much as it can get away with, in as much as it can keep from media controversy, the government in recent history has avoided fulfilling its responsibilities under the UN refugee convention that we are a signatory to, and stood resolutely for the tightness of our borders rather than the improvement of our community and our international standing. I’m proud that the public has held the government to answer for its actions, and created controversy regarding its behaviour, but its important to note that Australian governance has been seriously lacking in leadership, initiative, momentum and most seriously foresight. If refugees must be discussed in terms of political feasibility or convenience, I’ll highlight why politically, our attitude towards refugees is uninspired and unimpressive.

Recently, the story of a Syrian refugee has surfaced, who after two years in an Australian detention centre was sent back to his decimated village. The man, Eyad, had been the first from the disaster to agree to return, but the exceptionality is very much in our government’s attitude and treatment of refugees, made obvious in this case by the fact that no other organization or nation will return people to Syria. Countries like Germany, Austria, Turkey and others in Europe and North Africa, geographically or economically viable, have taken on the greatest portion of the Syrian refugees, and have responded according to the sincerity of their need. Undoubtedly there has been fear and hostility documented there too (for example, the viral video of the reporter tripping refugees running across borders in Hungary), but no other body or government has attempted to return refugees to Syria, given the undoubtedly stricken and volatile environment in the country.

Doubt of the legitimacy of asylum claims had been an excuse for the treatment and long detention of other asylum seekers, but in this case where the plight of Syrians as been conformed and repeated by all international bodies and spectators alike, makes particularly clear that we have not been driven by or felt bound by our humanitarian responsibilities, but there are many, many good arguments for the economic and social benefits of accepting refugees and migrants more broadly. The pertinent argument for why the Australian government’s reactionary behavior is insufficient is political though. No doubt, the reason for the Abbott government’s conservative policies were political too, given he was voted in on the back of serious leadership and economic insecurity and presumably felt he was onto a good thing, but Australian foreign policy can’t continue to be hesitating on the back foot, dragged by the public, for the important reason that our future is dependent on our integration into a global community, and short sighted, xenophobic policies affect our international reputation and relationships.

Politically and economically our progression is dependent on the rest of the globe, for security, trade, innovation and partnership on intercontinental issues and projects, and situations like these kinds of crisis call for stronger leadership and more ready involvement, in proportion with our capacity, but in line with our desired position among the world’s powerful alliances, and our policy makers need to be the ones at the forefront pushing for change and progression.

Recently I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald that said something along the lines of Australia is decidedly and consciously far more civilized than the US because we made the right call on gun laws. That we are trying to convince legitimate refugees to return to their war torn homes is an obvious counter example, as is our lack of commitment to climate change action. While Obama has a constituency with an attachment and culture revolving around firearms to fight, the Australian government has been dragging behind its people. A scarred constituency is difficult to fight; a scarred government is stupid to carry. We need policies that it will be possible, like gun legislation, to look back on as movements toward positive and lasting change. The abandonment of the Abbott government’s education reform act is a step in the right direction, and hopefully a sign that the Turnbull government will take action for the future, and appreciate the importance of being involved in and keeping up with the global community. The obvious needs to be said, not to Australian people, but to our government: refugees are not a threat to our border protection, they represent a humanitarian crisis, and should not just be spoken of as such, but treated in each level of our involvement accordingly.

Put simply, we cannot remain an island for their sake or our own.

Photo Credits: Feature image by ABC