Even Poor Countries Are More Generous To Refugees Than Rich Australia

Once upon a time there was a poor landlocked country and a rich island nation. When strangers seeking help came by foot to the poor country, they were welcomed in a rich spirit of generosity and given food and water and land. But when strangers seeking help came by boat to the rich country, they were banished to tiny islands offshore, proving that at heart, the country was not really rich at all.

Visiting Uganda recently, I was profoundly moved to witness how this relatively poor nation has welcomed hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese fleeing famine and war. How can it be that such a poor country does so much to shoulder the humanitarian load when we, rich and prosperous with a per capita income almost 25 times higher, do not?

At a time when the global refugee crisis has become epic in scale -- an estimated 1 in every 113 people are now displaced -- Australia, according to the last figures released by UNHCR, ranks 59th in the world when it comes to the total number of refugees we host as a proportion of our population, and 95th as a proportion of GDP. At the same time our aid budget is at its lowest ever as a proportion of GNI -- and set to get even lower.

Compare this to Uganda, one of the top three refugee-hosting nations in the world. In the past year, the total refugee population in Uganda has doubled from roughly 500,000 to over 1.2 million.

Incredibly, Uganda gives each refugee family a 30m x 30m plot of land to farm, food aid and access to primary schools and health services. But with the refugee population continually rising, Uganda cannot continue to provide these services without assistance and urgent help is needed from the international community to meet these costs. Right now, the UNHCR is facing a potentially fatal funding shortfall which will cost lives if not addressed.

The generous approach from Uganda's political leadership stands in stark contrast to that of our own leaders whose only enduring point of bipartisanship for the past 15 years -- give or take a few recent tweaks from Labor -- has been their efforts to outdo each other in their attempts to lock Australia's borders -- and with it the nation's heart -- to asylum seekers.

Offshore processing, as it has been implemented by successive Australian governments, has been unjust, cruel and a huge financial waste at an obscene half a million dollars per person per year.

Last week's $70 million-plus-costs settlement of a class action by plaintiffs incarcerated on Manus Island came after allegations people were housed in dirty and overcrowded facilities, experienced violent behaviour from security staff, and routinely lacked drinkable water, hygiene products and medication. One man described his experience on Manus as "hell".

It is not just Uganda but many other developing nations that put us to shame in the efforts they go to, to support large refugee populations. No less than 90 percent of all refugees are living in developing countries.

Lebanon, a country not much bigger than metropolitan Melbourne with a fraction of our wealth, has somehow absorbed a Syrian refugee population of one and a half million, more than a quarter of its own population of four million Lebanese. Many more have found refuge in Turkey and Jordan.

Australia's efforts by comparison would suggest we're losing a sense of our shared humanity, which for a country built on migration is, at best, ironic. All but indigenous Australians have a foreign ancestor. And despite our history of xenophobia, indisputably it is migration that has been the single major driver of the success and wealth of the 21st cosmopolitan Australia that we enjoy today.

Think about it. We speak dozens of languages. We enjoy huge culinary variety. Our cultural diversity is reflected in the curricula of our schools and universities. Why? Because migrants bring new ideas, reduce skills shortages, enhance our knowledge of international markets and generate massive fillips to our capacity for economic growth.

And at a time when Australia's population is aging, we need to look at ways of increasing our levels of human capital. Young, hard-working migrants contribute economically, politically and socially to grow Australia's strength and affluence. We need sustainable and inclusive growth.

Refugees are a part of this story.

If we are smart we will also be compassionate. We can plot a path forward that addresses both Australia's well-being as a nation, and the plight of the world's displaced.

We could boost our refugee intake to 42,000 a year -- from the current level of 16,250 -- and it would still only be a small fraction of overall migration. We could end offshore detention and acknowledge that seeking asylum is a human right, by resettling those found to be refugees in Australia.

By increasing our humanitarian assistance, Australia can help developing countries that host refugees with shelter, food, sanitation, education and health services where they are, closer to home.

It's a fact that the average refugee lives in exile for 17 years. As fellow human beings caught up in a global crisis, they deserve our compassion and help.

In Refugee Week, let's drag this debate up to a more humane and honest level and start afresh. Let's not leave it to the poorest countries to set the example. It's time we Australians lifted our game.

Published in Huffington Post Australia 20 June 2017

Tim Costello is Chief Advocate at World Vision Australia.

Picture: Children at Imvepi refugee settlement, Uganda, where along with food distributions, World Vision assesses 200 vulnerable children per day. 

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