#RefugeesWelcome: Australians demand a softer stance

Candlelight vigils are drawing large crowds of supporters urging government compassion for desperate refugees.

Hundreds of refugee supporters gathered in the city of Adelaide urging the government to soften its hardline stance [Tom McAtee/Al Jazeera]

Adelaide, Australia – Hundreds gathered on the banks of the Torrens River to mark the death of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee whose body washed ashore on a Turkish beach.

Illuminated by candlelight, the mood on Monday was sombre as those present observed a minute of silence in between speeches on the need to change Australia’s hardline refugee policy.

The Adelaide rally was one of many held across the country and organised under the hashtags #lightthedark and #refugeeswelcome. Thousands turned out in Sydney’s Hyde Park and a similar number gathered in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens.

Eman Elhelw, an 18-year-old law and media student, was in the crowd on the banks of the Torrens and told Al Jazeera that attending the vigil offered her hope.

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“This is the little part I can do to voice an opinion to the government that we all stand with refugees and that we need to do more,” she said.

“I’m first generation Australian. My parents came from Egypt more than 20 years ago, but it is very easy for myself to imagine being in the Middle East in the current situation. I’m not very far from it. If my parents hadn’t come, I would still be there, being raised in it.

“It’s very easy to feel very helpless about this issue because there are still a lot of critics, and a lot of people who aren’t welcoming, and a lot of people who believe that what Australia is doing is right.”

Harsh welcome Down Under

For the last 10 years, Australia’s legacy on asylum seekers is one fraught with mass drownings and “detention centres” operating in prison-like conditions, making the issue highly politicised amid the country’s political debates.

Under the current system, all refugees who arrive by boat are deemed “illegal maritime arrivals“, and none are granted asylum in Australia.

Anyone intercepted by the navy trying to make their way by boat to Australia from neighbouring Indonesia will either be pushed back or detained on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or the Pacific island of Nauru.

It is a policy framework that has faced mounting criticism in the lead-up to the release of a Senate committee report last week into the abuse of detainees by guards on Manus and Nauru.

The report’s publication came against a backdrop of scenes from Europe where thousands of Syrians tried to walk into Germany and Austria, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s insistence that Australia was an example to follow.

But German plans to take in 800,000 refugees at a cost of $6.6bn have offered an alternative way to deal with refugees that has many calling for the Australian government to do more to help with the humanitarian crisis.

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Australia currently accepts 13,740 refugees a year, with plans to increase the number to 18,750 by 2019. The bulk of these is made up of those fleeing Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

The Labor Party opposition has called for the number of refugees taken in to be raised by 10,000 while the Australian Greens Party prefers a figure of 20,000.


So far though, Abbott has resisted, suggesting his government may instead consider accepting more refugees from Syria and Iraq as a proportion of the overall number.

“It is important that there be a humanitarian response, but it is important that there be a strong security response as well,” Abbott has said.

‘Go back’

The border security message is one that resonates with people such as Kim Vuga.

“Our policies are working,” Vuga told Al Jazeera. “You can’t just look at a picture and make quick decisions on a picture shown around the world.”

The Townsville resident recently appeared on Go Back To Where You Came From, a reality television show that takes Australians with opposing views and walks them through the path taken to reach Australia as a refugee.

In it, Vuga spoke with an Indonesia people-smuggler, visited a refugee camp along the Jordanian border for Syrians fleeing the civil war and met Kurdish fighters fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

She raised several concerns that range from security to the integration of Muslim communities and said if Australia agrees to increase its refugee intake, those accepted should be Christians.

“We can’t look after our own people, and we can’t even close the gap with our indigenous in Australia, and so I’m sure we can’t even close the gap on another culture that hits our shores,” Vuga said.

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“We already have a Muslim problem in our country. We have people protesting against mosques that are popping up everywhere. If we help anyone, we should be helping Christian refugees.”

‘Muslim threat’

Vuga’s attitude is one shared by some in Europe.

Despite Merkel’s willingness to open the German border to thousands of Syrian refugees, others such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have moved in the direction of Australia and endorsed tough immigration policies and rhetoric over recent months.

Hungary, in particular, has opposed the introduction of a quota that would resettle refugees evenly across the EU in favour of one that would contain the flow of people to countries bordering conflict zones.

In doing so, Orban has variously labelled Syrian refugees “economic migrants” seeking a “German life”, and a “Muslim threat” to Christian Europe.

It is a hostility that has been carried over into police attitudes, with reports that groups of refugees passing through Hungary have been tear-gassed and moved into camps.

Not all Hungarians share these attitudes, however. Just last week, former Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany opened his home to refugees.

When asked why, he replied: “I am a normal human being.”

Source: Al Jazeera