The humanitarian crisis in Syria is not a new crisis. It is now in its fifth year. Whilst I welcomed the announcements that Australia would be increasing the refugee intake to 12,000 and committing $44 million dollars in aid, the context of the refugee intake and aid should not be forgotten.
In the last federal budget there was over 1 billion dollars in aid cuts. Funding to the Middle East and North Africa, including Syria, was one of the hardest hit regions. The amount Australia provided in humanitarian aid to Syria fell from $53.7 million to less than $8.8 million. This occurred while international aid agencies were warning that they simply did not have enough money to ensure food programs could continue. To further put this in perspective, Australia pays Transfield Services at least $60 million per month to ensure asylum seekers are in detention centres. As regards the intake of 12,000, it is still woefully under what Australia was-and should be-accepting. At one point, it appeared that the additional intake would be based on the religious grounds of the asylum seekers.
The Australian community was quick to mobilise against this discriminatory policy and the Lebanese Muslim Association held a press conference on 10 September and the representatives included Widyan Fares from the LMA, Stephen Blanks from the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, Sister Jan Barnett, Ian Rinatoul from Refugee Action Coalition Sydney, Sheikh Wesam Chekaoui and Father Rod from Anglican Church in Gosford.
Our message was simple: that the selection criteria for resettling asylum seekers from Syria in Australia should not be based of a refugee’s religion; but instead, should be made in accordance with our obligations under International Law. Being a Male, or single, or a Muslim in Syria does not disqualify you from torture, from persecution or from death. War does not discriminate on religious grounds-and neither should we. We also saw the birth of hashtags in support of a more humane response to Syria, such as #WeCanDoBetter and #AidNotBombs to name a few.
Our new Prime Minister, the honourable Malcolm Turnbull, remains committed to military intervention in Syria as an appropriate response to the humanitarian crisis. This belief is false. By pursuing a military intervention, Australia will be supporting the Assad regime-a regime that is suspected of using vacuum and barrel bombs against its own people. Bombing Syria will also contribute to the growing exodus of Syrians from their homeland. Worryingly, Australia remains one of the few democratic countries that does not have a War Powers Bill, which would give the Australian people a say in if our country should engage in military interventions.
The Australian community has called upon our new Prime Minister, the honourable Malcolm Turnbull, to resist the temptation of resorting to dog whistle politics and instead, to focus on inclusion and multiculturalism. Over 250 people attended a Communities United Rally that was held on 19 September in the Sydney CBD. Speakers included Mehreen Faruqi from the NSW Greens, Ahmad Malas from the LMA, Mark Lennon from Unions NSW, Uncle Ken Canning from the Aboriginal community and myself. The Syrian crisis, Islamophobia and racism were reoccurring issues raised by the speakers.
Finally, Mission of Hope organised a BBQ for refugees and refugee advocates on 20 September 2015. It was widely attended and provided much needed social support for refugees and their advocates.