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Misinformation abounds as Syrian refugee crisis intensifies

On the same day that Tony Abbott announced Australia would accept 12,000 refugees from Iraq and Syria – effectively doubling our refugee intake, conservative commentator Miranda Devine declared the “the compassion auction under way over refugees” as “sickening”.

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For the first time in decades it looks as though the mainstream political consensus on Australia’s brutal and illegal approach to managing refugee flows is crumbling, yet a few hard-right warriors are unwilling to accept the fundamental mood shift in the community. In the face of massive protests across the country, pressure from politicians of all political persuasions and the leadership being shown by countries like Germany, the domestic debate has rapidly switched from “illegals” and “queue jumpers” to how we can best manage our global responsibility.

In her column today Devine dropped the astounding claim that “Australia is the most generous country on earth when it comes to giving refugees a new home” and argued we shouldn’t do any more than prioritise Christian refugees within our existing intake. Paul Sheehan put forward a similiar case in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this week. Some Liberal Party figures took a different perspective, arguing for an expanded refugee intake, while The Greens, in line with calls from Amnesty International and the Refugee Council of Australia, have called for an emergency intake of 20,000 Syrian refugees and a $150 million funding boost to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. 

The fact that the Abbott government, internationally infamous for its hard-line approach on refugees, has felt sufficient pressure dramatically expand Australia’s refugee intake speaks volumes in terms of where the debate has shifted since the tragic death of Aylan Kurdi and the growing crisis in Europe. But the kind of commentary and “analysis” being put forward by Devine and Sheehan shows misinformation still dogs the domestic policy debate.

When announcing the government’s more muted, initial response to the Syrian refugee crisis, Tony Abbott stated “Australia takes more refugees than any other through the UNHCR on a per capita basis”, a statement regularly hawked by conservative commentators like Devine. But as The Guardian has succinctly explained, the figures Abbott is citing refer only to refugees under the UNHCR’s resettlement program – which accounts for less than 1 per cent of all refugees. Essentially, the figure and associated statement are meaningless.

Another argument deployed by those desperate to maintain Australia’s fortress mentality towards refugees is that Australia shouldn’t bear any responsibility for dealing with the crisis in the Middle-East until countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates step up and do their fair share. But the flaw with this line of logic is that is suggests Australia should effectively outsource its humanitarian and immigration policies to theocratic dictatorships with appalling track records on human rights.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of these factually lazy and intellectually incoherent arguments is how they completely sidestep any role Australia and its allies might have played in creating these humanitarian crises in the first place. It’s now well documented that the dismantling of the Iraqi state combined with unclear objectives on the part of the United States led to the conditions that saw ISIS sweep to power across the Middle East.

It’s depressingly ironic that the same hawks that are eager for Australia to drop bombs on Syria are unwilling to accept the humanitarian fallout.  Australia currently sends refugees back to the same war torn countries we are bombing apparently in order to protect them.

The Australian Government’s newly found humanitarianism on Syrian refugees should be welcomed as it reflects genuine concern and compassion within the Australian community. But our intake of 12,000 pales comparison to the half a million Syrian refugees Germany has decided to accept every year. It also shouldn’t cloud the fact that our government, through its direct military interventions in the region, has a broader responsibility to work towards peaceful and just outcomes in the Middle-East – rather than trading off an increased refugee intake for the right to bomb Syria. Perhaps most importantly, we shouldn’t forget that despite public support for our hard-line approach towards refugees weakening, we are still spending billions on mandatory, offshore detention in order to permanently exile asylum seekers to remote Pacific islands – including those fleeing from Syria.

Osman Faruqi is a Sydney-based writer and political campaigner.

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