The Politics    Friday, September 4, 2015

By the numbers

By Nick Feik

© Mustafa Khayat
Stopping the boats is not enough to save Syrian refugees

Anyone near the internet over the past two days would have seen the shocking photographs of the corpse of a three-year-old boy washed ashore in a Turkish resort town. The boy was one of the thousands of Syrians fleeing to Europe, and the images, illustrating the danger of their plight, have captured the world’s attention.

Europe is experiencing the most serious refugee crisis since World War Two, and its leaders are struggling to deal with it.

In an editorial, the New York Times addressed the situation this way: “Some European officials may be tempted to adopt the hard-line approach Australia has used to stem a similar tide of migrants. That would be unconscionable.”

It said that Australia’s border protection regime is inhumane, of dubious legality, and ruthlessly effective. (The editorial was widely shared among Australians, almost as if the international opprobrium confirmed something we only suspected before, or that the view of a foreign newspaper’s editorial board was worth so much more than our own, and worth more than international laws or human rights treaties.)

Thankfully, the French president, François Hollande, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, have fought the temptation to be more like Australia. They agreed in principle yesterday on a refugee distribution quota – they accept that thousands more refugees will arrive, and that these refugees need to be assisted, but argue that the burden must be shared not just among a few European nations.

Europe must help solve the refugee crisis with “fairness and solidarity”, Merkel stated, while emphasising that Germany was ready to take on more asylum seekers than other European Union countries.

Australian cabinet minister Barnaby Joyce, speaking this morning, said he was in favour of Australia accepting extra Syrian refugees, provided it was done through “proper and legitimate channels”.

He expressed sympathy for their plight: “As an accountant myself, when you see an accountant walking across the border into Hungary from Syria when his life has been destroyed, I feel a sense of empathy for him.”

An accountant might explain the situation like this: Australia commits to taking 1500 Syrian refugees per year; there are currently approximately 4.6 million around the world.

Perhaps there is hope that the Australian government will follow France and Germany’s lead and begin to assist in global efforts to resettle refugees, as it did following World War Two  and the Vietnam War. Any chance?

When Tony Abbott was asked for his response to the Syrian refugee crisis, and the images of the drowned boy, he replied as he often does, “If you want to stop the deaths, if you want to stop the drownings you have got to stop the boats.” Abbott’s argument is that if Australia stops boats from arriving in Australia, the lives of refugees will be saved. But let’s put it in numerical terms: If Australia helps settle virtually zero Syrian refugees, through any resettlement process, there will still be almost 4.6 million Syrian refugees whose lives are in peril. Tony Abbott, as we know, is not an accountant.

Today’s links

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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