Uniting Church leaders seek sanctuary for refugees

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Update 10/09/2015: Since first publishing the artiucle below, the government has made decisions about both the intake of Syrian refugees and military involvement in Syria. Uniting Church leaders have responded to these decisions here: http://sa.uca.org.au/uniting-church-news/a-welcome-first-response-to-refugees-from-syria

The Uniting Church in Australia is calling on the Australian Government to commit to a significant increase in Australia’s refugee intake as a response to the crisis in Syria.

“As one of the wealthiest and most secure countries in the world, we have an obligation to respond generously,” says Uniting Church President Stuart McMillan.

The Syrian refugee crisis was recently brought jarringly to public attention when a series of graphic photos were released depicting drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. These images have forced public attention onto an enduring issue – the thousands of people who have been displaced by the Syrian Civil War since 2011.

With pressure mounting on Australia to increase its intake of refugees from Syria and neighbouring Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has made several statements indicating “the government’s firm intention to take a significant number of people from Syria this year” (as stated here).

However, the Prime Minister has not yet indicated specific numbers, and has thus far ruled out an increase to Australia’s overall refugee intake.

“While we welcome the Federal Government’s commitment to increase our refugee intake from Syria, the scale of this crisis requires a much greater response,” says Stuart.

“I am pleased that politicians and political parties across the country are recognising that Australia has a moral duty to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. We have seen the human face of this tragedy and we can no longer turn our backs.”

Rev Elenie Poulos, the National Director of UnitingJustice, the Uniting Church’s justice and advocacy agency, agrees that while the Government response is a start, it does not go far enough.

“The recommendation from the Federal Opposition to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees without reducing our current intake is a step in the right direction… [But] we can do even better. We believe that Australia should offer 15,000 to 20,000 refugees protection as a matter of urgency,” she says.

“Refugees fleeing the violence in Syria and Iraq should be given permanent visas with work rights and supported to access appropriate healthcare and education in Australia. A substantial increase in Australia’s current funding commitment to the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] is also required.”

The Government seems to be taking a different approach to the refugee crisis. In August, the United States requested that Australia join air operations against the Islamic State in Syria, expanding current efforts which have been focussed in Iraq. According to a report by the ABC on Monday 31 August, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop suggested that additional bombing raids in Syria could help slow the number of asylum seekers leaving the country.

But the Uniting Church President has cautioned the Federal Government about military intervention in Syria, which he believes would worsen the situation for vulnerable civilians.

“We must take some responsibility for our own contribution to instability in this region. We cannot commit to more military action while ignoring the victims of this conflict,” Stuart says.

“Countries like Germany are taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from a conflict. Now is the time Australia must face the reality of the global refugee crisis. It’s time to reopen our hearts and our borders.”

Photo taken at the Adelaide Light the Dark vigil held at Elder Park on Monday 7 September.

The full media release from the Uniting Church in Australia, including additional quotes from Rev Elenie Poulos, is available here.

According to an ABC News article on Tuesday 8 September, a number of Abbott Government ministers are arguing for more Syrian Christian refugees to be accepted in Australia. Read more here.


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