This essay is part of a series that deals with the displacement crises in the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas. The essays examine the myths and misconceptions that have pervaded discussions about these crises, and with the constructive measures, as well as the constraints and capacity deficiencies that have hampered the responses to them. See more ...
 


According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.), by the end of 2014, the number of people displaced worldwide had reached almost 60 million.[1] Most of them had either been displaced within the borders of their own country, or had sought protection in a neighboring country. On December 31, 2014—the last date for which reliable statistics are available at the time of writing this essay—Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, and Ethiopia hosted more than 45 percent of the world’s 19.5 million refugees.[2] By contrast, at the same time Japan accommodated only 263 refugees as well as 64 asylum seekers whose protection claims were pending.[3]

The majority of countries in the global north have been affected only slightly by displacement, although the perceived threat posed by asylum seekers and other irregular migrants have dominated political debate in many countries of the global north. European commentators, for example, refer to the situation in Europe routinely as a ‘refugee crisis.’ However what is perceived by Europeans as a crisis—and is experienced as a crisis by people stranded when border access is restricted across Europe—pales in comparison to the crises faced by countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.

Given the sheer dimensions of displacement and the fact that the number of people fleeing war, persecution, and lack of human security, will keep rising, it is crucial that the wealthy nations of the global north become more involved in alleviating refugee crises. The role the global north can play in the developing world varies, be it by adequately funding the U.N.H.C.R. and other organizations that provide humanitarian aid, by playing a larger role as countries of asylum, or by resettling a significant proportion of refugees. It is therefore important to understand why countries in the global north are reluctant to do more, and to identify the circumstances that might make a less reluctant response possible.

Australia has long prided itself on being one of the world’s premier destinations for refugees who have been identified by the U.N.H.C.R. and other refugee agencies as being in need of permanent resettlement. Australia was certainly justified in making this claim in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when it resettled more than 170,000 refugees.[4] Eastern European Displaced Persons (D.P.s) stranded in the American, French, and British zones of Germany and in other countries of Western Europe at the end of the Second World War found a welcoming home in Australia. In 1949 alone, Australia, then a nation of about seven million people, resettled more than 75,000 refugees—or one refugee for every 100 Australian residents—through the auspices of the International Refugee Organization alone.[5] Australia cemented its reputation of being a generous host to refugees in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, when it resettled tens of thousands of people coming by boat from camps in Southeast Asia.

In more recent years, however, the comparative size of Australia’s humanitarian program has declined in relation both to the country’s overall migrant intake and to Australia’s population. Two exceptions aside, one of which I discuss below, for many years Australia’s resettlement target has stood at 13,750 per annum, including asylum seekers granted a protection visa in Australia.[6] Despite this positive history of refugee policy, Australia has recently introduced an extraterritorial processing and detention regime for asylum seekers arriving by boat, and has turned around boats carrying people seeking to engage the country's protection obligations. Australia has even refused to resettle people who have been found to be refugees according to the criteria of Article 1 of the U.N. 1951 Refugee Convention after having been processed in one of Australia’s offshore detention centers in Nauru and on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.[7] In the past three years, extraterritorial processing and detention has been supported by both major political parties, the Liberal Party (which, together with the conservative National Party, is currently in government), and the Australian Labor Party, which was in government until late 2013.

Yet over the past year, there were two occasions when the government’s resolve not to exceed its annual resettlement target was challenged. The first happened in May 2015, when thousands of refugees, most of them Rohingya, were marooned on dangerously overcrowded boats in the Andaman Sea. Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand reportedly refused boats carrying irregular migrants permission to land their human cargo, and instead refuelled and reprovisioned them, and then turned them around. Images of the refugee boats went around the world, and the issue attracted international attention, with Pope Francis and other world leaders calling on the international community to come to the Rohingya’s assistance.[8]

Indonesia and Malaysia eventually agreed to let the refugees land with the proviso that they would need to be resettled in third countries or repatriated within twelve months. Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s decision was welcomed by other countries, including the United States, which indicated that it would be prepared to be involved in an international resettlement effort. However, it soon became apparent that the international community would not guarantee the resettlement of all refugees rescued by the two Southeast Asian nations.

Efforts by the Indonesian and Malaysian governments to exert diplomatic pressure on other countries in the region, including Australia, to take in some of the rescued Rohingya, failed. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott categorically ruled out resettling Rohingya who had reached Malaysia or Indonesia by boat because they had not come through the “front door.”[9] In response to a journalist’s question whether or not Australia would assist its Southeast Asian neighbors in accommodating Rohingya, Abbott famously replied: “Nope, nope, nope.”[10] Abbott added, “if we do the slightest thing to encourage people to get on boats this problem will get worse, not better. Our role is to make it absolutely crystal clear that if you get on a leaky boat, you aren’t going to get what you want.”[11] Abbott also argued that Australia did not have any particular obligations with regards to the Rohingya. He said, “This is quite properly a regional responsibility and the countries that will have to take the bulk of the responsibility are obviously the countries which are closest to the problem.”[12]

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop suggested that “the focus must be on Burma, on the Burmese government to stop people being persecuted or having their human rights abused in Myanmar.”[13] She reiterated a line used by many Australian governments in the past in response to suggestions that Australia respond to a particular refugee crisis: “We have one of the most generous refugee and humanitarian resettlement programs in the world.”[14] In her view, Australia was already doing its fair share globally, while “we hope that other countries in South East Asia and Asia will also take their fair share of people found to be refugees.”[15]

The Australian government was criticized both by countries in the region (including Indonesia and Papua New Guinea) and members of the public, but on this occasion neither diplomatic pressure nor domestic opinion forced the government’s hand. Just over three months later, however, the government relented when pressured to take in more refugees from the Middle East.

The number of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria had increased significantly throughout 2014 and 2015. Following a deterioration of living conditions in Jordan and Lebanon, from mid-2015 an increasingly large number of Syrians tried to reach central and northern Europe via Turkey and Greece. But while their arrival created headlines in European countries directly affected by the mass arrival of refugees—including Greece, Austria, Germany, and Sweden—throughout the northern summer, the rest of the world took notice of the refugee exodus only in early September.

In the early hours of September 2, 2015, a small inflatable dinghy carrying 16 irregular migrants from Iraq and Syria left a beach on Turkey’s Bodrum Peninsula for the nearby Greek island of Kos. Within minutes of its departure, the boat capsized. Twelve of the passengers, including the wife and two young sons of the man captaining the boat, Kurdish-Syrian Abdullah Kurdi, drowned. Their bodies were found washed up on the shore. Pictures that Turkish press photographer Nilüfer Demir then took of the younger of the two Kurdi children prompted a worldwide outpouring of public sympathy for Syrian refugees.

The public response in Australia was no different from that in other Western countries, such as the United States, Britain, and Canada (where the response to Syrian refugees became a key issue in the national election campaign). Political leaders, including federal agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce and the Premier of New South Wales, Mike Baird, demanded an increase of Australia’s intake of Syrian refugees. “Who thinks watching a child drown is a good outcome?”[16] Joyce asked, demanding that Australia resettle more Syrian refugees, provided this was done through “proper and legitimate channels”—“otherwise you can see what happens when there are no controls on the border.”[17]

In a Facebook message posted a couple of days after the publication of Demir’s photographs, Baird wrote:

I don’t know how you felt when you saw the image of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless, face down in the sands of a Turkish beach. I felt sick with overwhelming sorrow. And despair. And anger. … I found that as the feeling of anger dulled, my next response was ... surely we can do more.… And we should do it now.[18]

Prime Minister Abbott initially promised that Australia would “step up to the plate” and accommodate more refugees from Syria and Iraq, without, however, announcing an increase of Australia’s overall humanitarian intake of 13,750 people per financial year.[19] One week after Alan Kurdi’s death, Abbott caved in to mounting pressure from within his own ranks and declared that Australia would resettle an additional 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq within 18 months.[20]

The wave of compassion triggered by the image of the body of Alan Kurdi explains why a government that had ruled out assisting with the mass arrivals of refugees was now willing to substantially increase the number of refugees to be resettled in Australia. The refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh who were seeking protection in May were perceived as an amorphous—and potentially threatening—mass of people. The dead boy on the beach in Turkey, on the other hand, was not only a clearly identifiable individual, but he was also innocent and harmless.

It is important, however, to keep Australia’s seemingly generous announcement in September 2015 in perspective. The Canadian government, too, had responded to the public emotions triggered by the publications of Nilüfer Demir’s photos by agreeing to the resettlement of more refugees from the war in Syria. It committed to accommodate an extra 25,000 government assisted Syrian refugees. By mid-February 2016, Canada had received 20,490 Syrian refugees, while of the 12,000 refugees to be resettled by Australia, only 26 had arrived.[21] Asked why Australia was lagging so far behind Canada, a spokesman for Australia’s immigration minister Peter Dutton explained that the government was taking “our national security extremely seriously.”[22]

The Australian government also made some controversial announcements about the composition of the 12,000 strong contingent. It said that it would target families from persecuted minorities, which was widely interpreted to mean that Australia would privilege Christians and would not resettle single men. Justifying the government’s prerogative to carefully select those to be resettled in Australia, Prime Minister Abbott said, “It is important that we bring in people who are going to be contributors to the Australian community. It is important that we don’t bring in anyone from this troubled region who might ultimately be a problem for the Australian community.”[23]

While politicians from all parties represented in parliament were moved by the images of Alan Kurdi and demanded that Australia resettle more refugees from Syria, the decision was not uncontroversial, with politicians and influential media commentators suggesting that Alan Kurdi’s father was a people smuggler and that he was to blame for his son’s drowning.

Although Alan Kurdi’s image had triggered outpourings of sympathy for Syrian refugees, he would not have been offered resettlement by Australia, had he survived the capsizing of the dinghy and landed on Kos. That is because his family would have left a place of temporary refuge in Turkey and tried to reach Europe with the help of people smugglers. In September 2015, Australia’s generosity was extended only to Syrians and Iraqis who had fled their country but not gone any further than neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey. The incongruity of Australia’s response to refugees from Syria and Iraq was hardly noticed. On the one hand, there were those who were eligible for resettlement. On the other, there were those who had fled first to neighboring countries, and then journeyed to countries that could offer them permanent protection, such as Sweden, Germany—or Australia. According to the ABC’s 7.30 Report, Australia offered to resettle an additional 12,000 refugees from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq while, at the same time, kept 17 asylum seekers from Syria in detention, including two children on Nauru.[24]

Seven months after the publication of the Alan Kurdi images and Australia’s announcement that it would resettle an extra 12,000 refugees, public interest in Australia’s response to the refugee crisis in the Middle East has waned. There are hardly any traces of the wave of compassion that seemed to have engulfed Australia in early September 2015. That is in the nature of a sentiment as fickle as compassion. Here, the Australian case has not been exceptional: Canadians’ compassion did not outlast the compassionate response of Australians.

However, Australia’s specific response is also due to two other factors. First, in Australia, humanitarian responses to displacement rely on compassion. In Australia, the only Western democracy without a charter or bill of rights, rights-based discourses are comparatively weak. Second, refugee resettlement is still based on the idea that refugees are invited to settle in Australia because they will make a valuable contribution to society. The idea that refugees are selected not according to their need but according to Australian requirements is therefore comparatively uncontroversial. After the terrorist attacks in Paris, with heightened public anxiety about the security risks of refugees, most Australians are comfortable with the idea that it is not in Australia’s interest to speed up the selection of refugees for resettlement. As soon as the public response to displacement is no longer tempered by compassion, it is guided by egotism: by the perceived national interest and by self-interest.


[1] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Worldwide displacement hits all-time high as war and persecution increase,” June 18, 2015, accessed March 30, 2016, http://www.unhcr.org/558193896.html.

[2] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “UNHCR Global Trends; Forced Displacement in 2014,” UNHCR (2014): 2-4, accessed March 29, 2016, http://www.unhcr.org/556725e69.html. This figure excludes people displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict, many of whom have also been accommodated by Jordan and Lebanon.

[3] Ibid., 50.

[4] Government of Australia, “The changing face of modern Australia – 1950s to 1970s,” accessed March 30, 2016, http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/changing-f….

[5] Klaus Neumann, Across the Seas: Australia's Response to Refugees: A History (Collingwood: Black Inc., 2015), 134.

[6] Elibritt Karlsen, Refugee Resettlement to Australia: What Are the Facts?, Parliamentary Library Research Paper, updated February 3, 2015, 7-9, accessed March 18, 2016, http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/library/prspub/1276913/upload_binary/1276913.pdf;fileType=application/pdf#search=%22background%20note%20(parliamentary%20library,%20australia)%22.

[7] Lenore Taylor, “Asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru won't settle in Australia, Turnbull says,” The Guardian, September 23, 2015, accessed March 30, 2016,  http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/sep/23/asylum-seekers-on….

[8] “Pope Urges Help for Migrants Stranded in Bay of Bengal,” Reuters, May 24, 2015, accessed March 18, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/asia-migrants-pope-idUSL5N0YF09S20150524.

[9] Shalailah Medhora, “Ministers press Tony Abbott for increase in refugee intake over Syria crisis,” The Guardian, September 7, 2015, accessed March 29, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/sep/07/ministers-press-tony-abbott-for-increase-in-refugee-intake-over-syria-crisis.

[10] George Roberts and James Bennett, “Tony Abbott rules out resettling Rohingyas in Australia, Indonesia says it is obliged to,” ABC News, May 21, 2015, accessed March 18, 2016,  http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-21/rohingyas-migrants-indonesia-says-australia-obliged-resettle/6486590.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Quoted in Ginny Stein, “Stranded at sea,” ABC television, Lateline, May 28, 2015, accessed March 18, 2016,  http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2015/s4244654.htm.

[13] Michael Brissenden, “Burmese govt must stop the persecution of Rohingyas: Julie Bishop,” interview with Julie Bishop, ABC radio, AM, May 25, 2015, accessed March 18, 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2015/s4241592.htm.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Quoted in Nick Butterly and Andrew Tillett, “Bring in more Syrian refugees: Barnaby Joyce,” West Australian, September 4, 2015, accessed March 18, 2016, https://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/29432422/bring-in-more-syrian-refugees-barnaby-joyce/.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Mike Baird, Facebook post, September 5, 2015, accessed March 18, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/mikebairdMP/posts/961929507268624?fref=nf.

[19] Tony Abbott, press conference, September 6, 2015, accessed March 18, 2016, http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/143015/20150915-1026/www.pm.gov.au/media/2015-09-06/press-conference-parliament-house-canberra.html.

[20] Naomi Woodley, interviewed by Mark Colvin, on September 9, 2015, accessed March 30, 2016, “Australia to resettle an extra 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees,” ABC, http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2015/s4309355.htm.

[21] Nicole Hasham, “Syrian refugees: Canada 20,000, Australia just 26,” Age Online, February 18, 2016, accessed March 18, 2016, http://theage.digitaleditions.com.au/OLIVE/ODE/online/LandingPage/LandingPage.aspx?href=QUdFLzIwMTYvMDIvMTg.&pageno=NQ..&entity=QXIwMDUwMA..&view=ZW50aXR5.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Quoted in Anna Henderson and Eliza Borrello, “Australia confirms air strikes in Syria, announces additional 12,000 refugee places,” ABC News, September 9, 2015, accessed March 18, 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-09/australia-to-accept-additional-12,000-syrian-refugees/6760386.

[24] Jessica Longbottom, “Syrians who came to Australia by boat plead for humanitarian intake inclusion,” 7.30 Report, ABC television, September 24, 2015, accessed March 18, 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2015/s4319336.htm?site=northcoast