While Australians are understandably focused on alleviating the immediate suffering of millions of people affected by the Boxing Day tsunami, a longer-term question is beginning to emerge. Are we prepared to take refugees from the crisis?
There are hundreds of thousands of Indonesians, Sri Lankans and Thais, in particular, whose lives have been destroyed. Most of these poverty-stricken people will want to remain in their homeland to rebuild their lives and those of their friends and families. But many may look to countries such as Australia as places to emigrate. If so, we should be prepared to open our arms to them.
When Kosovo was destroyed by war in 1998, Australia reacted generously in allowing many Kosovars to seek respite in our country. Unfortunately, our generosity only extended so far. After the Howard Government deemed Kosovo a safe place to return to, the Kosovars were sent back.
The circumstances are different this time.
While the small region of Kosovo could be readily rebuilt with political co-operation and aid, the physical environment of tsunami-affected areas in Asia has been radically altered. The 15m waves of brine not only rendered topsoil sterile and useless for farming but churned salt deep into the subsoil. Authorities warn this will make hundreds of thousands of Asian rice farms, fruit plantations and other agricultural endeavours useless for much of the next 10 years.
In Sri Lanka, wells, the primary source of precious water for millions of poor villagers, have been destroyed because they are now filled with salt water. It will take three years to flush out the wells and make them safe to use again.
In Aceh, where the tsunami hit hardest, fragile and marginal businesses have been completely wiped out. In the aftermath of any large-scale human tragedy there are many people who want the chance to build new lives.
This was the case after World War II and the Vietnam War. In both situations, Australia allowed migrants to come to our wealthy land and stay. We must do the same again now: no doubt, thousands of Sri Lankan farmers, Aceh fishermen and Thai craftspeople will thank us for the offer and take it up.
A refugee package for the tsunami victims should allow for short-term stays for those who want to, or are able to return home. But we must also be prepared to allow refugees to permanently settle here if their circumstances are such that to send them home would create great hardship and poverty.
There have also been suggestions that our universities reserve places for young tsunami victims and that government and business work up a scheme for bonded positions of employment. It is to Australia’s advantage that we allow tsunami refugees to work and study here.
These migrants will send back money to their families and villages, adding another source of income to the long-term rebuilding program for tsunami-affected areas.
Australia’s treatment of refugees in the past five years has been inhumane: the tsunami tragedy presents an opportunity for us to show we are a compassionate country after all. Let’s not rule out the possibility.
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