Lessons from the Middle East in Restoring Hope for refugees and asylum seekers

| June 23, 2013

Last week’s Refugee Week celebrated the contribution of refugees rebuilding their life far from home. Phil Glendenning, president of the Refugee Council of Australia, argues that we should measure up to the generosity of Middle Eastern countries in supporting refugees.

With Refugee Week we celebrated the many qualities associated with the everyday lives of refugees and asylum seekers. It was a true celebration of the great resilience of people who have the strength to endure appalling situations, rebuild their lives and inspire others.

It is appropriate that this year’s Refugee Week theme was “Restoring Hope” because it reminds us that while a refugee’s journey begins with danger, it also begins with hope. Refugees flee their homelands not only because they fear persecution, but also because they have hope: they hope to find freedom from persecution, and safety and security for themselves and their families; they hope to be given a chance to start a new life and recover from past trauma.

When people are given this opportunity to participate, to rebuild their lives, to work in their community, to send their children to school, not only do they gain a sense of belonging and a sense of worth to their new country, but the new country and community benefits as well.

While celebrating Refugee Week every year, we must remember the situation of refugees whose hopes have not been fulfilled – those who remain in seriously protracted situations, facing ongoing discrimination, violence and uncertainty, with little hope for a resolution in the near future. The theme of “Restoring Hope” calls on us to consider how we can provide solutions for these refugees and restore their hopes for a future.

Our celebrations give us hope in circumstances where there are many reasons for despair. The global situation for many refugees continues to be appalling, and the national political debate about asylum causes much reason for despair. The environment for constructive refugee policy is only going to get harder in coming years.

What is often ignored in our national debate about asylum is that Australia’s share of global responsibility for refugees is very small. Around 80 per cent of the world’s refugees seek asylum in countries much poorer than ours in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

Kenya has hosted millions of refugees during the conflicts in Somalia and Sudan. Pakistan has hosted more than two million refugees after decades of ongoing war and conflict in Afghanistan. Even now, the civil war in Syria has led to over two million refugees fleeing across the border into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

At the recent UNHCR NGO consultations in Geneva we learned about the extraordinary generosity of these countries in responding to the needs of refugees. Refugees are fleeing Syria to neighbouring countries at a rate of more than 7000 people every day. Lebanon, a country with a population of just 4.3 million people, is hosting more than one million Syrian refugees.

The UNHCR has reflected that this cross-cutting Middle Eastern tradition of aiding the weak is central to the support being offered to Syrian refugees. The UNHCR has appealed for international support to assist the host communities to maintain their impressive support to people fleeing the Syrian civil war.

UNHCR and 124 other organisations have just launched the largest humanitarian appeal ever, seeking US$2.9 billion to continue and expand the extraordinary work being done to support Syrian refugees in the Middle East.

It is embarrassing for Australians to note that this same amount of money was announced in last month’s 2013-14 Federal Budget for the Australian Government’s costs for detaining asylum seekers both here in Australia and offshore in Nauru and Manus Island, PNG.

Australia’s capacity to spend billions of dollars on detention and deterrence measures to try to stop people who are seeking protection from persecution stands in stark contrast with the extraordinary generosity of the Lebanese, Jordanian, Turkish, Iraqi and Egyptian communities.

In these countries there is no talk about turning back the trucks.

“Restoring Hope” is not just about restoring hope for the millions of people who face persecution and insecurity in the world: it is about restoring hope and faith in our own humanity. Australia can do better. Australia must do better.