A diminished generosity. How Australia’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis pales in comparison to the efforts of our forebears

This week’s outpouring of empathy and compassion for those fleeing violence in Syria has been remarkable and has seen the commendable decision of our government to welcome 12,000 refugees from Syria in the next 12 months. As welcome as this decision may be, it’s simultaneously a signal of just how hardhearted we have become.

In the Syrian refugee crisis the world is seeing the largest displacement of people since the end of the Second World War. Millions are internally displaced within Syria, 4 million have fled the country, and with both the militant Islamic movement ISIS and the tyrannical Assad regime firmly dug in, the violence that gave rise to this displacement could carry on for years.

Australia’s response falls far short of our response to major displacement crises in the past. Between 1949 and 1951, when our population was just 8 million, Australia welcomed 160,000 refugees from post-war Europe. Adjusted for population that’s the equivalent of Australia taking 480,000 refugees today. From 1981 to 1983, when our population was 15 million, we welcomed almost 60,000 refugees in response to the displacement crisis caused by the Vietnam war. Adjusted for population that’s the equivalent of Australia taking 96,000 refugees today. In 1989, with a population of just under 17 million, we offered 42,000 Chinese students four year protection visas after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Adjusted for population that’s the equivalent of Australia taking 59,000 refugees today.

I am genuinely thrilled that in addition to the 13,750 people who will receive entry to Australia under our ongoing humanitarian programme, the next 12 months will see 12,000 Syrian refugees also offered the opportunity start a new life Australia. At the same time I live with the hope that these 12,000 will be the first fruits of an ever widening generosity that is true to the heritage in which we stand.

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