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PM’s refugee intake announcement

[written by Andy Hamilton SJ for Eureka Street]
The Prime Minister’s announcement that Australia will accept 12,000 refugees from Syria, in addition to the capped intake, deserves an unqualified welcome. It is a generous decision and a welcome demonstration of leadership.

For those of us who are concerned with people who seek protection from persecution and violence it has been an amazing fortnight. A fortnight ago political conversation about asylum seekers had to do with turning back the boats in Australia, the links of terrorism with ethnic and religious identity, exporting our Stop the Boats policy to Europe, the seductive dangers of compassion, and attempts to wedge other parties on the basis of their softness.

During the last fortnight the photographs of refugees in Europe, and particularly of Aylan Kurdi, the opening of Germany to refugees and the enthusiastic welcome offered them by ordinary people in Europe transformed the tenor of the public conversation from fear and loathing to compassion.

And now in Australia. People around Australia have donated money to the people who seek protection, have demanded that Australia accept Syrian refugees and have asked that they can welcome them in their own towns.

And now the Prime Minister has made a decision that breaks with what we have come to regard as business as normal. He ignored the demands made by some of his backbenchers for a religiously selective policy, for a minimal acceptance of refugees and for priority be given to budgetary considerations.

In the announcement, too, there has been no trickery with numbers – the refugees will come as soon as possible over a short period of time. Nor has the financial cost been seen as deciding the basis for accepting refugees. The question put to the financial people is not whether we can afford to receive the refugees, but how we shall pay for them now that they are coming.

In this decision, too, the Prime Minister did not consider only narrow Australian interests in shaping Australian policy. He recognised the crisis as one facing the whole international community. He saw the acceptance of refugees and the small donation to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as part of Australia’s global citizenship.

And finally, the Leader of the Opposition did not attack the decision on the ground of cost, but supported the Government, expressed delight that his own proposed target was exceeded, and refrained from focusing on the effect on the surplus. He too deserves our thanks.

For many of us this change has been like watching the rains fall after a ten year drought. It does not mean, of course, that the local streams will flow for long. Narrowness and nastiness may continue to dominate Australian refugee policy and political life, and making war may triumph over saving people in the Middle East.

But this moment of compassion and solidarity nurtures hope that things can be other. And for that Mr Abbott deserves our ungrudging gratitude, whatever side of politics we stand on.