byDrVanessa Newby, Adjunct Research Fellow with the Griffith Business School

The recent Australian Government decision to allow 12,000 Syrian refugees into Australia is timely but Abbott’s term as Prime Minister has left Australia’s international reputation tarnished when it comes to humanitarian issues more broadly.

Abbott legacy

Now that Malcolm Turnbull has taken the reins it will be interesting to see how Australia performs on the international stage having gained a dismal reputation during the Abbott years: for the turning back boats policy, the response to the Rohingya refugee crisis, slashing the aid budget, climate change denial, and for reducing the national quota for humanitarian migration. Just over a week ago the ‘stop the boats’ policy was lambasted by a New York Times editorial which made the salient point that not only is it heartless, the Australian government may have broken international law by actually paying the very people smugglers at the root of the problems this summer. Reducing expenditure on climate change research has also done Australia no favours with the international community, recalling that climate change is also related to poverty and migration — as Tim Costello noted recently in The Age. The slashing of the aid budget has also not helped not least because in theory, money spent on development is aimed at preventing war and the economic conditions that drive people movement. Australia’s international aid ratio to gross national income will drop to its lowest levels in the history of the country in 2017-2018 according to current projections. Bearing in mind the massive aid program expansion that occurred during the UN Security Council bid, these reductions make Australia look pretty superficial and must have put Australian officials in multilateral forums on the back foot to say these least. The latest move on migrants is a small step in the right direction but as it is Malcolm Turnbull is going to have to work hard to re-establish the good name of Australia on global humanitarian issues like migration and international development.

Europe’s response

Having said that, Europe’s response to the migrant crisis this summer has largely been disorganised and emotional – yet again exposing how easily divisions emerge in the EU over any issue. On the mainland, Germany has now re-imposed border controls because it admits it can no longer cope with the numbers flooding in and Hungary, Austria and Slovakia have followed suit. Until agreement between the Schengen countries on refugee quotas can be reached the pressure will remain on countries in Europe such as Italy, Greece and Serbia where bottlenecks build up. The latest plan is to establish camps outside the EU zone, similar to the off-shore processing system that Australia currently operates and is heavily criticised for.

Europeans still remain sympathetic on the issue, for example on the frontline of the crisis in the sea itself, the navies of countries operating in the Mediterranean have provided relief and rescue to all refugee boats they come across and none have been turned back. However the sheer numbers arriving on the smaller islands have led to a sense of being overwhelmed; nonetheless locals continue to assist those who arrive.

Underlying the confused European government responses to the refugee crisis this summer are three main issues that influence popular opinion. First, most citizens in the western world are aware of the horrendous conditions that exist in Syria, the on-going conflicts in Libya and Iraq and the dangers for minorities and women in Afghanistan. Public sympathy towards those groups is fairly high and has triggered a number of pro-immigration demonstrations in Berlin, Paris and Rome. Where sympathy dries up quite quickly and where there is considerable confusion is over the type of refugees attempting to enter Europe. Those deemed to be economic migrants that have also taken to the boats in the Mediterranean this summer are felt to be opportunists taking advantage of the crises in the Middle East and West Asia to wangle a free pass.

Security concerns

Finally there are security concerns that sudden influxes of unregulated and unprocessed migrants may include individuals who are members of extremist groups that are moving to Europe in order to commit terrorist acts. This assumption should not automatically be made but is one that realistically has to be considered.

In the UK, a country not bound by the Schengen Agreement, the approach has been to use aid alongside a humanitarian refugee policy: agree to accept some migrants but also offer financial support to the original receiver countries to help try and stop the boats in the Mediterranean. David Cameron has agreed to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees, and like Abbott, stated they must come from the camps. This policy ensures that refugees can be vetted from a security point of view and may deter those flooding in from the Mediterranean on boats run by people smugglers. In other words, the message to Syrians is — head to a country where the UNHCR can process you — primarily Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. To help those countries deal with that influx, the UK has donated around $1 billion to Syria’s neighbouring countries making it the second largest bilateral donor in the world after the US. Yesterday Cameron paid a visit to refugee areas in Lebanon and Jordan to underscore the message that the international community should be donating more to multilateral organisations in particular the World Food Program and UNHCR to help alleviate pressure in countries affected by massive refugee flows. This is a simple message that should not be lost on Australia’s new Prime Minister when thinking about how to re-establish Australia’s place in the humanitarian world.