In Summary

  • Analysis for for Inside Story by David Corlett, Swinburne University of Technology 

I am sitting on a mattress on the floor of a demountable building in the Al Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. After meeting me at a neighbour’s, Fatema brought me here to drink tea, meet some of her family, and tell me about her circumstances. She and her family have been living here since they fled the fighting in Syria.

Fatema is the lively matriarch of a family of twenty. Quick to laugh and brimming with stories from five decades of life in Syria, she explains how she ended up in the camp. “I saw myself dying,” she tells me. “We were all threatened. It was really hard for us. It was war. Would you stay in a place that had war? I had to take all my kids and flee. There was no food, there was nothing. Airstrikes every day.” She laments the loss: “Oh my village, oh my village. It is all demolished now. It is empty now.”

Jamal Ahmed is another of the millions of victims of the war in Syria. Although he isn’t part of Fatema’s family, he has joined us while we have been talking. With his greying stubble and moustache, he sits opposite me, smoking, next to Fatema’s son, Ibraheem. He has something to tell me, but I am preoccupied for a while with what others are saying. Eventually, though, our attention moves to Jamal, who tells me he was tortured by the Syrian regime and wants to show me the evidence. I am reluctant: I have seen enough of the remnants of torture, and it seems voyeuristic to comply. He also wants to show me YouTube videos of Syrians being tortured. I refuse the latter, but finally agree to look at his injuries.

He turns and lifts his shirt to reveal a scar the shape of a hawk stretching from one shoulder to the other. The skin, he says, was melted with a cigarette lighter by Syrian government torturers in the shape of the regime’s coat of arms. Now it sags unevenly.

From start to finish, the refugee experience is unfairness actualised. It is profoundly unfair that people are forced to flee their homes, families and friends because of war and the gravest of human rights violations. It is unjust that the poorest nations of the world do the heavy lifting – to use a phrase that has become popular in Australian political life – by hosting 86 per cent of the world’s refugees.

The unfairness extends to the resettlement programs of countries like the United States, Canada and Australia, which only provide places for a total of around 80,000 refugees annually. Of course, not all refugees want to be resettled in countries like these; many would prefer to return to their homes as soon as it is safe to do so. But according to the UNHCR, 960,000 refugees are in need of resettlement because returning home is not a realistic medium-term option. (Even with this disparity between supply and demand, the full global resettlement quota, strangely, is generally not met.)

Of course, resettlement is not the only way wealthier countries contribute to dealing with the problem of forced displacement; they effectively fund the international refugee system. For its part, Australia committed A$112 million to United Nations humanitarian agencies, including the UNHCR, in the 2014–15 federal budget. While this is not an insignificant amount of money, it is miserly in the context of the needs of refugees and Australia’s capacity to contribute.

In fact, the 2014 budget cut Australia’s overall overseas aid funds – money that might be directed towards assisting refugees or building capacities within countries to prevent the emergence of refugee-producing situations – by $8 billion over five years. In real terms, the Australian aid budget will fall by 10 per cent over the next two years, and will go only a third of the way towards meeting the OECD’s goal of each member country spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on aid. By 2016–17, Australia’s percentage will have fallen to 0.29 per cent.

Naturally, there are those who argue that Australia’s economy is not in a position to assist more refugees or other humanitarian crises. Viewed from afar, however – from Jordan, Lebanon or Syria, or from Pakistan, Ethiopia or Kenya – the claim that Australia is in a weak economic position is hardly compelling. Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, rankingsixteenth by national income, with GDP per capita (adjusted for purchasing power) of three times the global average.

It isn’t a budget shortfall that prevents Australia from offering the UNHCR more funds: the federal government spent as much on its “stop the boats” policy in the first six months of Operation Sovereign Borders as the entire annual budget of the UNHCR. Or, to view the equation from a different angle: the United Nations has requested US$2.28 billion to assist 12.2 million Syrians in need within Syria – that’s a lot of people and a lot of money – yet Australia spends 3.8 times that amount (to take just one possible example) on superannuation tax concessions to the wealthiest 5 per cent of Australian earners. We are clearly dealing with priorities of a different order here.

Australia’s response to asylum seekers and refugees is rarely seen in its global context, and so the debate here never takes account of the full complexity of global displacement. Nor does our political discourse deal fully with the ethical questions involved. We don’t view the question of fairness in its totality, even as we obsess about that very issue. Our approach seems to reflect the provincialism of our debate – its exclusive focus on our domestic politics – as well as our inability to see the broader ethical frame. Now that the Abbott government seems to have stopped the boats, there is a real opportunity for Australia to engage more fully in questions of global displacement.

This is also an opportunity to deal with the plight of people who remain caught in the trap of Australian policy. There has been much discussion about the “legacy caseload” – about 30,000 people detained or living in insecurity within Australia’s borders – whose unnecessary suffering could be alleviated without a significant cost to the government’s absolutist border-control policies. There are also a handful of Syrians in Australia’s offshore detention regime who have no real prospect of returning to Syria and no real possibility of building a life in Papua New Guinea or Nauru. It is difficult to imagine that relieving them of their suffering by recognising that they are refugees, as the rest of the world does, would lead to a renewal of boat arrivals in Australia. The cost would be little; the benefits to these people, enormous.

Back in Al Zaatari, Fatema talks of her own powerlessness and resistance. When her granddaughter was born prematurely, she tells me, she was concerned about the baby’s health. She approached the Jordanian police and asked permission to take the baby to hospital. The police refused, saying she needed to go through the bureaucratic process. Lacking faith in the system, Fatema took the child, escaped the camp, and made it to the hospital. To her great relief, she discovered that her granddaughter was well.

With a twinkle in her eye, Fatema says that she wishes she could take me to Syria, where the water is clear and she would give me organic tomatoes from her land. But that seems a long way off. The millions of displaced people – internally and externally – are unlikely to be repatriated in the near future. And Fatema knows the risks. She doesn’t want me to take her photograph or film an interview. She is afraid that if her face becomes known then she may be in danger if she ever returns to Syria. Four women from her village in Syria were arrested the day before I met her.

“What will the government do to them?” I ask.

“What would you expect them to do?” she answers. 

 Written by David Corlett, Swinburne University of Technology. This article originally appeared on Inside Story. Read the original article.