The case against the Prime Minister was packaged by cartoonist David Pope in last Saturday’s Canberra Times. He drew a picture of the Turkish soldier carrying Aylan’s body from the sea and being told by Tony Abbott, dressed in lifesaving cap and swimmers with an Australian flag as a cape: “If only you’d kept them safe by towing them back to Syria.”
In other words, it’s all Abbott’s fault. Pope linked the tragedy of the flight of Syrians from the shocking civil war taking place in that country with Australia’s “stop the boats” policy.
One problem with the cartoon is that the Abbott government is not towing asylum-seekers back to their countries of origin but to nations where they already have sought refuge — Indonesia, for example.
The unfashionable fact is that the Coalition’s “stop the boats” policy has worked in stopping drownings. More than 1000 children, women and men lost their lives at sea during the time of the previous Labor government. On the available evidence, there have been no drownings since the Abbott government came to office. Moreover, people-smuggling is no longer a profitable industry around Australia’s shores.
The other problem with Pope’s cartoon turns on an inconvenient truth. Aylan’s mother and brother (who also drowned) and his father (who survived) did not set out from Syria. Rather, Abdullah Kurdi engaged a people-smuggler in Turkey, where the family had resided for three years, to take him and his family to Greece. In other words, this is a secondary movement.
The full details of the drownings were reported in The Wall Street Journal on September 3. Moreover, Abdullah Kurdi took the bodies of his wife, Rehan, and children back to Kobane for burial. This suggests Aylan’s father did not have a genuine fear of persecution in Syria since refugees are not in a habit of returning to the place from which they have recently fled, even if to bury relatives.
The understandable emotion resulting from Aylan’s tragic death has led to a closing down of debate. Liberal senator Cory Bernardi has been criticised — by Coalition, Labor and Greens politicians alike — for stating the Kurdi family was not fleeing Syria when the people-smuggling boat in which they were travelling sank off a Turkish beach.
Currently it’s a matter of “don’t talk about The Wall Street Journal report”. But it’s fashionable to quote from the recent New York Times editorial that castigated the Abbott government’s policy on asylum-seekers while failing to mention the Obama administration has not indicated it will accept refugees from the Syrian civil war.
In a typically pompous performance on the ABC’s Q&A last Monday, Australian-born human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson declared that if “Australia doesn’t step up, we (will) get another editorial in The New York Times saying that Australians are a mean and miserable race … it’s terribly damaging”. Robertson went on to state “it was the Hawke government that put little children behind barbed wire at Woomera”.
If Robertson were the expert on asylum-seekers he presents himself to be, he would understand it was the Keating Labor government that began mandatory detention in Australia. Robertson was not corrected by Q&A presenter Tony Jones.
In fact, on a per capita basis, Australia’s refugee and humanitarian intake is among the most generous in the world. Moreover, unlike Obama, Abbott has announced Australia will substantially increase the number of Syrian asylum-seekers welcomed into the country. As a host nation, Australia is entitled to give priority to the asylum-seekers it chooses to accept.
Controversy emerged earlier in the week when Anthony Fisher, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, told The Australian’s Tess Livingstone many Syrian Christians who were being persecuted “have relatives and a cultural affinity to Australia and we should be honouring those ties and connections”. On Tuesday, the Archdiocese of Sydney put out a written statement on this issue.
On ABC Radio 774 on Tuesday, presenter Jon Faine implicitly criticised Fisher’s stance by suggesting the crisis should not be “a matter of religious competition”.
This misses the point. Jews have already been driven out of most areas of the Middle East. In recent years, Christians are experiencing a similar phenomenon.
Last Monday, Egypt-born scholar Samuel Tadros, who works at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, addressed the Sydney Institute. Asked about the future of Christians in the Middle East, he responded that it was very grim.
As Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull have acknowledged, Muslims — whether Sunni or Shia — will be able to return to their home nations when the conflicts in the region dissipate. But Christians who have fled persecution from oppressive governments or non-state murderous entities such as the so-called Islamic State — Daesh — are unlikely to have a country in the Middle East they can again call home.
This is not a matter of religious competition but, rather, of survival. Apart from Israel, the nations of the Middle East are heading — intentionally or otherwise — towards becoming Christian and Jewish-free zones. Jews have an automatic right to settle in Israel. Arab Christians — Orthodox, Catholic and more besides — increasingly will need to seek refuge in Western nations, including Australia.
In the second half of the 1970s, Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition government took thousands of Lebanese escaping Lebanon’s civil war. While not strictly refugees, they were given special refugee status. As it turned out, the overwhelming majority of Lebanese who settled in Australia at the time were Muslim — Sunni and Shia. In time, some returned to Lebanon on a permanent or temporary basis.
Since it is unlikely Christians fleeing the Middle East will ever feel safe to return to the lands of their birth, it makes sense for Australia to give them special consideration. This is not a matter of competition but survival.