If Tony Abbott knocked on my door last Wednesday, I would have kissed him, ushered him in, poured him a glass of our best wine. A day earlier, the reception might have been different.
I don’t envy your job, Mr Abbott.
What a tense couple of weeks it’s been for you and your cabinet, but as one Australian voter with a deep concern for vulnerable people – even those beyond our shores – I want to say thank you for listening.
As you know, less than a week ago the Australian government announced it would welcome 12,000 extra permanent refugees from the Syria conflict, with a particular focus on women, children and families from persecuted minority groups. Australia will also pay for the direct accommodation of 240,000 refugees seeking asylum in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
Watching the news footage of women pushing prams along railway tracks, of fathers crying into the necks of their children, of cities leaning like ashen boxes in rubble gardens, we have wept.
Their blood has run down our faces as tears.
And then there was little Aylan, famous in death as the three-year-old Syrian refugee washed up on a beach, his mum and five-year-old brother Galip dead too, his dad alive and in torment. His death portrait has become the impetus for action – a photograph to revive compassion. Just like the famous ‘Napalm Girl’ photo from the Vietnam War. Images that shook the world from apathy.
We’re so sorry you died this way, Aylan. But look: your death was not in vain.
There are 4 million Syrian refugees, making them the world’s largest refugee population.
We should capitalise that figure, underline it, highlight it – whatever it takes to drive home the enormity of the number. That’s the population of Melbourne (and nearly eight times the population of Tasmania) displaced from homes.
In 2012, there were 100,000 Syrian refugees.
In April 2013, there were 800,000.
By August that year, there were 1.6 million.
And here we are two years on and the figure has climbed to 4 million – with half estimated to be under the age of 18. The UN predicts that there could be 4.27 million Syrian refugees by the end of the year.
We can skim over figures like these until an Aylan washes up on a beach somewhere, and we’re reminded that each digit signifies human life.
So, Mr Abbott has upped Australia’s refugee intake. It doesn’t stop there. In fact, this is where it starts.
How will they be selected? How will they arrive? How will they be dispersed? How will their accommodation be managed? What kind of assistance will they need in areas like language, finance, clothing, healthcare, education and transport?
The complexities of a decision like this will tumble down to us common folk and we just might be called on to lend a hand in a very practical way.
Let’s prepare for that.
Start opening ourselves to the possibilities of sharing hospitality, resources and time.
And let’s pray for an armoury of wisdom – for our leaders making the tough decisions and every person that interfaces with these war-bruised people who will soon be our neighbours.
First published in The Examiner Newspaper for Keeping the Faith column on Monday September 14, 2015.