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Chance For a Change Of Heart On Refugees

17/09/2015 9:20 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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BULENT KILIC via Getty Images
A Syrian man wait with his children near the highway on September 16, 2015, on their way to the border between Turkey and Greece. Around 1,000 refugees remained stranded September 16 in the northwestern Turkish city of Edirne, near the Greek border, after being barred by Turkish authorities from continuing their journey to Europe. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

After 15 years of a deeply divisive and toxic debate over refugees, ordinary Australians have finally and decisively rejected the politics of fear. It is my hope that in doing so they will have also led our political leadership to a new and fairer place.

Certainly the Federal Government's recent announcement to take an extra 12,000 refugees presents an opportunity for a new dawn on this issue. We see the government is now committed, at least for this year, to a refugee intake of 25,750 and I unequivocally praise them for this.

This is but a hair's breath away from the 27,000 that the ALP committed to at their recent conference. This temporary outbreak of near bipartisanship needs to be replaced with a permanent shift in our political debate. The truth is this escalating global crisis is not going away. World Vision, along with Oxfam and Save the Children as Australia's leading aid agencies working with Syrian refugees in the region, are calling for a permanent overall intake of refugees of 30,000.

Like many around the world, ordinary Australians were first moved by the poignant image of a neatly dressed, well-shod little boy, lying face down on a beach. When the picture of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi first started to appear in our Facebook feeds and on our TV screens and the awful 30-second truth dawned on each of us that he was not peacefully asleep but clearly dead, drowned at sea, so too did we each experience our own small epiphany about the awful desperation of this global refugee crisis.

It was this image that first pricked the bubble of the indifference in which we've collectively held this terrible conflict. We cannot go back and wipe those images from our mind, so with the bubble burst we now need to ask ourselves as a nation what more we can do.

The images have caused us all to grow in our understanding of the crisis. This is not simply a refugee crisis, brought on by the impending winter or the desperate food shortages in the region, but the conflict in Syria which has raged for over four long years and is still a long way from resolution.

That our response to this and our decision to insist publically that there must be a better way began with a backbencher virtually no one has heard of makes it an even bigger victory for the little guys. Craig Laundy's articulation of the need for our nation to do more, much more in the face of such profound and ongoing need, resonated powerfully for Australians. When we think change comes from the top, history teaches us some of the biggest change comes from the bottom.

At the same time we need to be honest that the bubble hasn't been a matter of not knowing but of actively choosing to isolate ourselves -- and the change doesn't just reflect an eruption of compassion but just as important the return of courage, to face down fear and importantly the rejection of exploitation of fear as a daily feature of our national politics.

It would be wrong to think that we have now done all we need to do. There is an urgent need for ordinary Australians to continue to engage on this issue. There is a serious funding shortfall for the global humanitarian appeal, with only a third of it being secured. This means that almost 16 million people in Syria and neighbouring countries are not having their most basic needs met. We must not turn our backs on them.

This moment will only become a true turning point if we continue to remind our leaders that this can't be a fleeting feel-good moment and that we don't want to go back to those divisive debates of the past.

We also need to insist on non-discrimination as a fundamental of Australian immigration policy; it took us nearly 100 years to eradicate that particular noxious weed from our garden and now is no time to replant it.

What Australians want is a new debate, one that can be conducted with courage and compassion that is based on our common humanity and the best ideals of Australia, not the base motives of political expediency; our leaders need to know that no longer will there be votes in whipping up fear.

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Tim Costello is chief executive of World Vision Australia.

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