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The extraordinary crisis in Europe has thoroughly reshaped the language and terms of the refugee debate in Australia. By Sophie Morris.

How Syria changed the refugee debate

A Syrian refugee with his one-month-old baby arrives by dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos last week.
Credit: Reuters

For Prime Minister Tony Abbott this week was supposed to be all about war, as he prepared to announce that Australia would join air strikes over Syria.

Abbott was poised for a Churchill moment, ready to deploy more wartime rhetoric as Australian pilots rained down bombs on the “death cult”. Instead, compassion trumped conflict. Or at least secured equal billing.

After dithering for a few days about lifting Australia’s refugee intake, Abbott won praise from Labor and even the Greens for his government’s decision to welcome an extra 12,000 refugees who have fled the conflict in Syria and Iraq and are waiting in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

They are expected to begin arriving by year’s end, following health, security and character checks. Unlike the 4000 Kosovars whom the Howard government offered temporary haven in the 1990s, these Syrian refugees will be allowed to stay permanently.

The air strikes against Syria will go ahead, too, broadening the existing campaign of bombing targets in Iraq. Indeed, they may have already begun. Abbott was keen to see bombs dropped on terrorist strongholds in Syria within a week.

Politicians from both major parties expressed hope that this week marked a shift away from the toxic and divisive nature of the political debate about immigration since the Tampa affair in 2001.

“This week we have seen the politics of the immigration debate characterised by generosity,” Labor’s immigration spokesman Richard Marles told The Saturday Paper. “That is a wonderful development and a sea change in the way we have considered immigration in recent times.”

Liberal backbencher Craig Laundy, who had urged the government to accept more refugees, told a forum on Wednesday night that he hoped it was “the start of a conversation at a much more mature level that enables members of parliament to engage with the public in a way that transcends partisan politics and focuses on results”.

Make no mistake, though, if compassion is in fashion, it has its limits. It does not extend yet to those who arrive by boat, which includes some 30,000 people in Australia awaiting processing of their claims, and almost 1800 people still detained on Nauru and Manus Island. The Syrians among them will not be offered refuge. Those already in Australia can hope for a temporary visa at best. Those in offshore camps have little hope of anything.

On Thursday, Abbott described Australia as a country with “a big heart, as well as a strong arm”. He remained adamant that those who arrived by boat were not welcome. “We will never ever do anything that encourages the evil trade of people smuggling and all of those who have come to Australia by boat are here as a result of people smuggling,” he said.

“Moral moment”

Much has been made of Abbott misreading the mood and missing the “moral moment” to show leadership after pictures were published of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a Turkish beach after he drowned trying to reach Greece.

Others were quicker to sense and respond to the community’s desire to help. As Labor leader Bill Shorten urged the government on Monday to accept 10,000 refugees from Syria, NSW Premier Mike Baird suggested more might be needed. “Stopping the boats can’t be where this ends,” Baird wrote on his Facebook page. “It is surely where humanitarianism begins.”

Within the federal government, unlikely champions emerged in the form of Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce; Laundy, an ex-publican from a marginal seat in Sydney’s west; and Ewen Jones, a former auctioneer from Townsville. Jones said the image of the “poor lifeless little tot” had sparked a change in community sentiment and suggested on Monday that Australia could welcome up to 50,000 refugees.

Abbott fell back initially on his rote response to any issues related to refugees, suggesting last Friday that the photo of Aylan underlined the importance of stopping the boats to avoid deaths at sea. The opposition believes it has neutered the political potency of this “stop the boats” mantra by providing de facto endorsement of boat turn-backs at the ALP conference in July.

By Sunday, Abbott had dispatched Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to Geneva for discussions with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in an acknowledgement that Australia should respond to the crisis in Europe. Yet at that stage he continued to argue any response could be within Australia’s existing refugee program, capped at 13,750 places this year after the government cut it from 20,000 places.

When thousands gathered at vigils across Australia on Monday night, and as pressure built within the government, Abbott relented and went further than many had expected, announcing the extra 12,000 places and $44 million for the UNHCR to help feed and clothe refugees in camps. To those who will find sanctuary in Australia as a result of the government’s decision, the fact Abbott took a few days to reach it is of no consequence. “It’s important,” he said on announcing the change, “that we act with our head as well as with our heart here.”

Labor's plans for Nauru and Manus detainees

In this instance, Abbott was not captured by the hard right, though some did try, like Queenslander George Christensen, suggesting refugees would take Australian jobs or go on the dole. When Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi repeated assertions from News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt that Aylan Kurdi and his family were not “real refugees”, he was scorned by colleagues.

Those Coalition MPs who argued in the party room meeting on Tuesday that too much compassion would test the community’s tolerance of immigration were outnumbered by those arguing, as one MP said, that “the heartbeat of the community is we should respond”.

But the changed mood in the government towards refugees does not signal a push to dismantle the harshest elements of the Coalition’s border security regime, which have also been endorsed by Labor.

Indeed, many of those who argued this week within the Coalition for an increased refugee intake said this was only possible because the boats had been stopped. The same voters who backed the government’s border protection policies were now demanding action to help Syrians, said one Liberal MP, arguing it was not just a chorus “from the ABC and the Left”.

Even under a future Labor government, Marles is adamant that those on Nauru and Manus will not be settled in Australia. He argues that to do so would again open up the perilous people-smuggling routes. But he has begun work on options for their future. In April he visited refugee camps in Jordan and held talks with the UNHCR, then visited South-East Asia in May. Labor’s hope is that its promise to dramatically boost funding to the UNHCR and further increase the refugee intake could persuade other countries to help it resettle those who have been languishing for years on Nauru and Manus Island.

The government’s attempt to settle some of these refugees from the offshore camps in Cambodia has failed dismally, with just four refugees being sent there, despite the provision of an extra $40 million in aid and $16 million for resettlement services.

“Australia still has an obligation to those on Nauru and Manus,” says Marles. “It is incumbent on the government to seek a resolution for those people and I am deeply concerned that the government has given up on that.”

After Dutton briefed the National Security Committee of Cabinet on Tuesday night, Abbott announced the increase along with the new military measures on Wednesday, prioritising “women, children and families from persecuted minorities who have sought temporary refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey”. The subtext was no single males. Senior Liberals had publicly advocated a focus on Christian minorities, but Abbott insisted there was no intention of excluding Muslims.

Air strikes in Syria

Settling these migrants has been estimated to cost $700 million during the next four years. This is less than the annual $500 million price tag that Abbott last year put on the military engagement in Iraq. Expanding air strikes to Syria is, according to the chief of the Australian Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, no major change operationally for pilots who are already flying sorties over Iraq. “For all intents and purposes, they just take a 10-degree left turn when they go on task and end up over Syria,” he says.

Even so, retired generals have raised concerns. Former army chief Peter Leahy told the ABC’s 7.30 on Monday that the air strikes should be debated in parliament. In the days leading up to the announcement, Peter Gration, who led the ADF from 1987 to 1993, warned it would be a “strategically dumb” move that would risk lives and inevitably lead to a ground war.

Australia is already the second biggest foreign contributor to the US-led military effort against Daesh. Now it will also make a big contribution to global efforts to manage the immense tide of displaced people by welcoming the 12,000 Syrians and Iraqis in addition to the existing humanitarian intake of 13,750 refugees from around the world this year.

Britain will resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years. A European Commission plan involves France accepting 24,000 over two years and Germany resettling 31,000, though Chancellor Angela Merkel has signalled it expects to process up to 800,000. But such numbers will not come close to dealing with the challenge. More than four million people have fled Syria alone and there is no end in sight to the conflict, which Abbott famously characterised in 2013 as “baddies versus baddies”.

Millions wait in camps outside Syria. Some have already been there for years and are growing impatient to pursue a better life, whether via land or sea. Last weekend alone, 22,000 arrived in Germany by rail.

It was these global pressures, encapsulated in one stark and distressing image, that shifted the mood this week – first of the public, and then of the government. Sometimes it takes a shocking story of human suffering to bring about change.

In 2005, when Liberal moderates including Judi Moylan and Petro Georgiou were urging a softening of a harsh regime, their push was aided by rising community concern following the unlawful detention of Cornelia Rau.

“It’s unfortunate in some respects that it takes that kind of graphic image or story to show people what is going on, but that is how it has been on many occasions,” says Moylan. “And that is why we’re now seeing such secrecy about what is going on in Nauru and Manus Island.”

After threatening to cross the floor and bring on a private member’s bill, Moylan and other moderates secured the release of children from detention and the conversion of some temporary visas to permanent residence. She is heartened by this week’s announcement, but thinks it must go further. “I don’t particularly understand why we continue to lock up people on Manus and Nauru who have fled in similar circumstances,” she says. “I don’t see how that’s different to people leaving Syria now.”

When the Tampa, a Norwegian freighter, rescued 438 asylum seekers in Australian waters in 2001, the Coalition government sent commandos to board the vessel and refused permission for the asylum seekers to land.

It was a hardline response that shocked the world but played well for the Coalition politically. Terrified of being portrayed as soft on the issue, Labor followed the Coalition’s lead. It’s a manoeuvre that has played out repeatedly in the years since, with the Coalition taking a tough and unwelcoming approach to refugees and Labor joining it.

This week, roles and goals were reversed. Labor ventured compassion and the Coalition went even further.

It remains to be seen if this is the new normal in the debate about immigration or if it is an aberration brought about by a moving photograph, a groundswell of compassion, and the impossible awkwardness of pursuing war without some humanitarian relief.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 12, 2015 as "How the refugee debate changed". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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