During his visit to the Lesbos refugee detention center on April 16, Pope Francis agreed to bring back to the Vatican 12 Syrian refugees who were cleared to be resettled. Six adults, six children, all finally free.
His move was a far cry from the bottlenecks and closed borders Syrian and Iraqi refugees face throughout the world. Last fall in the wake of the heartbreaking image of the drowned body of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdy, countries all over the world pledged to help, only for many to back down after the Paris attacks last November. In our own country, an astonishing 31 states insisted they would not take Syrian refugees, for fear they might be dangerous.
In recent years the Australian government has struggled mightily with the question of refugees. After the Labor Party won government in 2007 it pared back many of the draconian policies that had been in place; but the end result was hundreds more boats trying to make the passage to Australia. Over 1,000 people drowned, and the government’s opponents campaigned nonstop on the issue until the Labor Party, in a last ditch effort to stay in power, instituted a policy that no asylum-seeker who comes by boat would ever be resettled in Australia under any circumstances, whether their claim to refugee status had merit or not.
In 2013 Labor ceded power to the Liberal Party, and new prime minister Tony Abbott and his immigration minister Scott Morrison instituted what was oftentimes a sneering, callous approach to refugees. While they argued (as had Labor) that their efforts were first and foremost about protecting vulnerable asylum-seekers from the people smugglers who stole their money and threatened their lives—a worthy goal—the offshore detention centers where they held refugees have proven nightmarish, with regular reports of rape and violence perpetrated upon refugees by locals and high numbers of refugee children harming themselves. Medical care in some of these places seems next to nonexistent, and medical care providers who reveal anything they see there have been threatened with jail time.
At the same time, Prime Minister Abbott proved unusually obsessed with the threat of ISIS, regularly making incendiary comments about Islam and purportedly pushing the United States to mount a ground campaign against ISIS.
With all of this in mind, the fact that in September 2015 Abbott agreed to accept 12,000 additional refugees from Syria and Iraq, on top of the country’s normal humanitarian intake of 13,750, seemed a powerful statement.
“We must play our part in this humanitarian crisis,” said Abbott, a devout Catholic who at one time considered the priesthood. He promised the government would “move quickly” to see people placed in Australia, with no preferential treatment beyond “women, children and families—the most vulnerable of all.”
Soon after, though, Abbott adjusted course on this point, suggesting to great outcry that in selecting refugees Australia would be prioritizing “persecuted minorities,” namely Christians. For him it was the last of many blunders. Within a week he had been rolled by his own party and replaced as prime minister with the more moderate Malcolm Turnbull, who is also a practicing Catholic.
More than seven months later, though, the country still hasn’t followed through on its commitment to the Syrian and Iraqi refugees. So far Australia has taken in less than 30. Both Prime Minister Turnbull and his immigration minister Peter Dutton have explained this away as part of the long process of security checks. Said Turnbull, government security agencies “are taking great care in ensuring that those people who come in are as far as we can ascertain not people that would pose any security risk to Australians, and we make no apology for that.”
And yet in the same time Canada has welcomed over 26,000 Syrians. The government has also put together a website that lays out where refugees have been located and how Canadians can help them. And in December the country launched an astonishing social media campaign of ordinary Canadians welcoming refugees (including this moving clip of Canadian school children singing “Tala’ al-Badru ‘Alayna,” the song of gratitude and welcome sung to the Prophet Mohammed when he sought refuge in Medina).
“Francis gave us a new life,” said one of the refugees brought back from Lesbos to the Vatican.
Said another, “We are grateful to the pope. We will prove ourselves worthy of this opportunity and the gift he gave us.”
Like our own country, Australia is a nation of immigrants, hard working people who just wanted a chance to prove themselves worthy. Before them and us stands our next great generation. Would that we would give them their opportunity.