Developing countries are putting Australia to shame on refugees

Campaigns and Advocacy, Humanitarian Advocacy, Opinion article written on the 28 Nov 2018

Today, the signatures of about 170,000 concerned Australians from across the country will be handed over at Parliament House, calling for the Government to get all refugee children off Nauru.

The Kids Off Nauru campaign has mobilised people in support of getting children off the tiny island country and raised awareness of the fact the Australian Government is still keeping more than 1000 refugees in offshore detention on Nauru and Manus Island. On the global scale, this is not many people — though it still more than 1000 individuals living their lives in limbo.

It’s likely very few Australians know that the vast majority of the world’s refugees live not in wealthy Western nations like Australia, but in the poorer developing countries surrounding their homes.

For example, Turkey is sheltering as many as 3.5 million Syrians, who have fled the ongoing and devastating civil war in their home country.

Pakistan and Uganda are both providing sanctuary to about 1.4 million refugees from wars in Afghanistan and South Sudan respectively.

One of the main reasons is when people are forced to flee their home countries, they often travel to the country next door and try to stay as close as possible, with the hope they can return to their homes, cultures and memories as soon as it’s safe to do so.

This was brought home during my recent visit to Oxfam’s Australian Aid funded projects supporting Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

After this and a previous trip to Jordan, what keeps coming back to me is the generosity these countries have shown to millions of Syrian refugees they have provided sanctuary to for more than seven years.

Lebanon is a tiny country, roughly one sixth the size of Tasmania, with a population of about six million people. Unofficially it’s believed there could be as many as 1.5 million Syrian refugees sheltering in Lebanon.

This means roughly one in every four people living in Lebanon is a Syrian.

Jordan is a bigger country, with a population of closer to 10 million people, where there is unofficially estimated to be as many as 1.2 million Syrian refugees.

Neither Jordan nor Lebanon are overly wealthy countries and yet Syrians have been welcomed and, to varying degrees, supported.

There are growing signs the locals are growing tired of hosting this huge number of people, in countries that have limited or no social safety nets for their own citizens.

And yet, there have been no moves to force large numbers of refugees to return to Syria — because it’s understood it’s not safe for them to go home.

Syrian parents I spoke to don’t want to go back yet because they’re worried their sons will be conscripted — or their homes and businesses were destroyed so they have nothing to return to.

Meanwhile, in Australia, we have just over 1,000 refugees, women, men and — as we now know –children, still languishing in detention on Nauru and Manus Island.

I cannot understand how Lebanon — and in particular Jordan — give sanctuary to millions of refugees, while in Australia we seek to punish those who come here asking for safety. We do this even after successfully resettling tens of thousands of refugees over the decades — Eastern Europeans after the World Wars, Vietnamese refugees and more recently, Syrians and Iraqis.

The Syrians in Lebanon and Jordan were not sitting waiting for, but were instead busy trying to do what they could to pay for food, water, shelter and education.

Oxfam’s work in both countries, aside from providing essential drinking water in refugee camps, aims to help Syrians find jobs and gain new skills they will be able to use to help in rebuilding a new Syria.

Refugees are people just like us. They have hopes and dreams for the future, want the best for their children and families and are willing to work hard to provide this.

Oxfam’s long called for an end to offshore detention — and attention is urgently needed to break the destructive political deadlock keeping children on Nauru.

We are a nation with a strong economy, a capacity to resettle a large number of people and a proven history of managing refugee resettlement effectively.

Oxfam urges all MPs to put aside politics and take immediate steps towards ensuring the lives of these children are protected.

Dr Helen Szoke, Chief Executive, Oxfam Australia

This opinion editorial was first published on 10 daily on 27 November 2018