Australia should announce another extraordinary additional humanitarian resettlement of refugees from the conflict in Syria, refugee advocates say, as the civil war in the country descends – again – into the illegal use of chemical weapons and the number of people forced from their homes by the conflict passes 5 million.
The quota for Australia’s initial additional resettlement of 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq – external to its annual humanitarian intake of 13,750 – has been filled.
All 12,000 visas have been assigned, according to the latest federal government figures, and more than 10,400 refugees have arrived in the country as part of the program.
Oxfam Australia’s chief executive, Dr Helen Szoke, said that, “considering the success” of Australia’s resettlement of the initial 12,000, and the ongoing outflow of refugees fleeing the conflict, the Australian government was well-placed to resettle more people.
“The international community seems intent on watching on as millions of people are stuck between the rock that their country has become and the hard place that exile offers them,” she said.
“Oxfam calls on rich countries to show their support for Syria’s neighbours that have welcomed these refugees and to resettle at least the most vulnerable 10% of Syrian refugees by the end of 2017.”
A former Australian ambassador to Syria, Bob Bowker, said Australia was in a position to accept more refugees from the conflict in that country.
“I would like to see Australia doing much more to accept Syrian refugees that have been assessed as such and provide more support in local communities to assist their settling into Australia.”
Bowker, plenipotentiary to Damascus from 2005 to 2008, said “the Australian community will benefit” from accepting more refugees – particularly those that are well-supported in their initial months in the country – and that the experience of the current cohort was that younger refugees adapt better, and more quickly, to their new country.
But he said Australia needed to accept refugees from the conflict on the basis of those in most acute need of protection, not on any sectarian division.
“Our response needs to be based on our common humanity, not on the basis of religious affiliation.”
Australia’s one-off additional resettlement program, announced by the then prime minister, Tony Abbott, in September 2015, has been widely hailed as a success, though it has not been without controversy.
Initially, Australia’s pace of resettlement lagged well behind comparable countries such as the US and Canada. In the same 12 months those countries had settled 10,000 and 30,000 refugees under additional intakes respectively, Australia had accepted just 2,000.
There were also concerns that Australia, in identifying persecuted minorities for resettlement, had preferenced Christians over refugees of other religions.
Both Iraq and Syria are Muslim-majority countries and, while Christians in those nations face religious persecution, Muslims, both from sectarian minorities and majorities, are also significantly persecuted.
There was concern that, once in Australia, too many refugees were being resettled in too few areas: in particular Fairfield and Liverpool in Sydney’s west, Hume in north-western Melbourne and Logan, south of Brisbane.
In February, the Fairfield city mayor, Frank Carbone, said his council had resettled one fifth of all of Australia’s humanitarian migrants last financial year. Nearly 5,000 refugees moved into the area, the equivalent of an entire suburb’s population.
“More funding needs to be provided locally for better coordination of services and to ensure job creation, housing, health and youth services are adequate,” he said.
Governments, state and federal, responded, with additional funding for resettlement, health and education services.
The federal government has sought to reform and streamline its humanitarian settlement program, to prioritise integration and independence.
“Central to this reform is improving English, education and employment outcomes, ensuring humanitarian arrivals have the best chance at thriving in Australia,” the assistant minister for social services, Zed Seselja, said.