Australia is to give permanent visas to 12,000 refugees stuck in United Nations camps in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, making the country, on a per capita basis, the most generous in the world in handling the humanitarian crisis that is the fallout from the Syrian conflict.
At the same time Australia has acceded to Pentagon requests to extend to Syria its role in the bombing campaign against Islamic State. The move has bipartisan support on the basis that it is necessary to the defence of Iraq, whose government requested Australian involvement to push back IS’s attempt to establish a caliphate across large parts of both Syria and Iraq. Australia has made it clear that its aircraft or support will not be used in any operations against Syrian president Bashir al Assad.
The offer is more generous than any from Europe or North America, and compares starkly with the total inaction of the rich sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf.
Teams from the Department of Immigration will arrive in the camps in the Middle East in coming days to select those who will be offered permanent settlement in Australia. The Abbott government decided to offer 2000 more visas than the 10,000 proposed by the Labor Opposition, and also ruled out making them ‘temporary’ on the grounds that the refugees would have little or no chance of returning to their original homes, and should not face uncertainty.
There are some aspects of the Abbott government’s decision that make it interesting. It has gone out of its way to avoid rewarding the people smugglers, who have been responsible for the surge of refugees and illegal migrants from the Middle East and North Africa into Europe.
The 12,000 additional refugees will supplement Australia’s present humanitarian intake of
13,750. But, unlike that intake, the 12,000 will be drawn from “the women, children and families of persecuted minorities”. These people will be known to the officials of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees; nevertheless, each potential Australian migrant will be interviewed by Canberra officials and be subject to health and security checks.
The selection criteria will mean fewer seats for single (Muslim) men on the Qantas aircraft that will bring the first groups to Australia in time for Christmas. Oppressed and persecuted Muslims will not be excluded, but the Government’s priority is to bring to Australia people who are most in need and most likely to resettle happily.