Syria in firing line; Egypt’s hard line on journos remains; Indonesia cuts no-go zone red tape. By Hamish McDonald.

Compassion in face of EU refugee crisis

Refugees walk to Greece’s border with Macedonia last week.
Refugees walk to Greece’s border with Macedonia last week.
Credit: AFP

Having patched over the problem of Greece’s debt, Europe has lurched into another crisis with the influx of asylum seekers.

 A staggering 3000 a day are coming in by land from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan through the porous borders of the Balkans and the Greek islands. Africans packed in ramshackle boats and flimsy inflatables continue to try crossing the Mediterranean.

The states on the southern and eastern peripheries of the European Union − Greece, Italy, Hungary − are accepting those who come over or under the barbed wire or those rescued at sea and allowing them to travel on to Europe’s richer core.

The numbers already arrived and applying for asylum are staggering. Since 2011, Germany has had 547,000 asking to stay, France almost 256,000 and Sweden 229,000. Even Britain, protected by the Channel moat, has had 125,000 apply for asylum. The flow is increasing: Germany expects to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year.

As German chancellor Angela Merkel warned this week, the influx threatens continuation of the so-called Schengen system of free movement within the European Union’s outer borders. The other great danger is the impetus it gives to xenophobic nationalist parties in what so far are liberal democracies. European Union home affairs ministers meet on September 14 to thrash out a sharing of the burden, by assigning resettlement quotas to member nations.

Australians must look on with amazement and shame at the way Europe still manages a high level of compassion and commitment to refugee treaty obligations under such stress. We continue with Nauru, Manus Island and turning back our comparative trickle of boats, while our newly uniformed border force turns from the frontier to the illegal foreigners within. Melbourne taxi drivers were to be the first target: never mind the organised illegal farm workforce in places such as Griffith and Bundaberg being ignored for the benefit of Nationals voters.

1 . Syria in firing line

The helpful suggestion from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to Europe this week was why not join in more bombing in Syria to deal with Daesh and thereby end the refugee outflow.

Philip Ruddock came back from his own tour of Europe appalled at the “absent leadership” by the United States and Europe in settling the Syrian conflict.

By the time this appears, Tony Abbott and his National Security Committee may well have decided on the “American request” for help in bombing the Daesh in Syria, and shown the Europeans the way.

His fascination with getting the Australian military into the Middle East may go beyond his domestic political needs. Last year Abbott was reported to have stunned his military chiefs by asking, apparently seriously, whether an Australian force could be launched to seize back the Iraqi city of Mosul from Daesh. Perhaps he thinks the Australian Army, having captured Damascus from the Ottoman Turks and then from the Vichy French, can carry out a third such feat in just under a century.

Extending the Royal Australian Air Force operations into Syria will come with much more danger than the existing campaign in Iraq. Several pockets of the Assad regime’s army remain in areas contested by Daesh. They may have some serious anti-aircraft capability, supplied by Russia. Assad’s air force, according to a new Israeli report, will soon be bolstered by a contingent of Russian fighter jets, piloted and serviced by Russian crews.

On the political side, the attacks on Daesh (and Turkey’s campaign against Kurdish fighters) will relieve pressure on Assad. They will also add to civilian misery and cause more to flee. After the debacle of Iraq and the missed opportunities in Afghanistan, the hesitation of the West to show more “leadership” of the kind Ruddock seems to want is quite understandable. The solution to the sectarian-based conflicts in Syria − and Iraq − will need to be a political one, worked out by the region’s Sunni and Shiite powers and their various Western, Russian and Asian backers.

2 . Egypt’s hard line on journos remains

Just how far those regional powers remain from such a constructive approach was illustrated this week when an Egyptian court gave three-year jail sentences to the three Al Jazeera journalists in a retrial of charges of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood opposition to the military regime in 2013.

The retrial was widely expected to dismiss the charges, after the earlier seven-year sentences were thrown out by an appeals court. The Australian reporter Peter Greste was deported after that dismissal. The other two, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed, did not have that option and remain to face the music.

Greste is put in an agonising position. Australia will not extradite him back to serve the sentence. But barring another successful appeal, he is stuck with a criminal conviction and the possibility of extradition in a range of countries. He will also be aware that with the only Westerner out of the picture, the pressure on President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to pardon and release his two colleagues will be much less. Should Greste go back and surrender himself, to restore that element of extra international concern?

Sisi’s new anti-terrorism laws, meanwhile, haven’t met much protest by our defenders of democracy and press freedom. As well as special fast-track courts for terrorism cases and protection for police and military personnel accused of using violence against terrorist suspects, they impose fines up to the equivalent of $91,000 for journalists who contradict official accounts of terror attacks.

3 . Indonesia cuts no-go zone red tape

In Indonesia, however, there’s been a small victory for journalism, after Jakarta bureaucrats tried to throw into reverse President Joko Widodo’s announcement four months ago that the no-go region of Papua was now open to foreign reporters without special permits.

Last month the Home Affairs Ministry, responsible for internal security, announced that foreign journalists going anywhere in the country would henceforth need two permits: one from a “Co-ordinating Team for Visiting Foreigners” at the Foreign Ministry, and another from the Home Affairs Ministry, instead of the usual media visa and press card issued by the Foreign Ministry. If travelling to “remote areas”, they would also need a permit from the local office of something called the National Unity and Politic Affairs Body, which is under local administration. As well they had to be able to show identity papers issued by Indonesian missions abroad.

Nothing to do with terrorism, just the prickly nationalism that infuses the Indonesian bureaucracy and political elite and has recently surfaced just when the country comes out of a long resources boom and desperately needs employment-generating foreign investment. Fortunately, the president stepped in this week and ordered the Home Affairs Ministry to rescind the new foreign media regulations.


[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 5, 2015 as "Compassion in face of EU refugee crisis".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on September 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.