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Syrian refugee settlement in Australia must be permanent

  • 09 September 2015

Last week's photo of a Turkish policeman gently carrying the body of a three year old Aylan Kurki and the influx of asylum seekers and migrants to Europe has sparked many calls for Australia to make a generous response to help Syrian refugees.

The conflict has been destroying Syria since its outbreak back in 2011 and it is estimated over 200,000 Syrians have been killed in this brutal war.

By all means we should be offering to resettle more Syrians. That part is easy. Whatever number of people we accept, it is still only small given there are an estimated four million Syrian refugees and a further eight to nine million people internally displaced. This equates to nearly half the population of Syria being either refugees or internally displaced.

The scale is very high but this does not mean that the Australian contribution of 5000 or 10,000 or even 20,000 places here is not valuable. It is a life changer for each person resettled. One idea being proposed is to provide a temporary safe haven visa (TSHV), as was done for the Kosovars back in 1999.

But the Kosovar solution is not a good one. In 1999, 4000 Kosovars were brought to Australia on a TSHV initially for three months but what turned out being several years. Legislative bars were created to prevent them from applying for any other visa whilst here, including protection visas. These bars still exist in the Migration Act. This was the stick part of the deal — they were expected to go home as soon as possible. Just over 120 were allowed to stay after the then Minister Ruddock eventually agreed to allow them to apply for protection. The same happened with East Timorese at the time of the crisis after the separation referendum.

The Kosovars were initially housed in defence department camps around the country. It seemed the easiest way to provide urgent accommodation as they had restricted work rights (20 hours a week). Later some were allowed into the community, only to have to pack up and leave when it was decided that it was safe to return to Kosovo.

Syria's is a far greater humanitarian disaster and is unlikely to be resolved for a decade or more. Therefore the idea of a temporary visa only, with work restrictions and bars on other applications, will only create new stresses and traumas for an already highly traumatised population. The uncertainty