Conspicuous compassion



SBS Online, 11 September 2015


For those who have just joined us, here’s the score: Australia 12,000; Britain 20,000; Germany 800,000. Perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves that the migration crisis is not just a numbers game. Compassion is not, and never should become, an Olympic sport.

Too often this week, the eagerness to show “we care” has displaced the much harder moral and practical challenge of determining how Australia can best relieve the anguish of millions of displaced people.

Judging by one ABC Radio report, the leaders of a candlelight vigil in Sydney’s Hyde Park on Monday night had entirely missed the point.

“Thousands turned out to deliver a simple message,” reported Lindy Kerin on Tuesday’s AM. And what was that simple message? A GetUp organiser speaking from the podium spelt it out.

“We should be so proud of ourselves standing here tonight with courage and compassion to say welcome,” he said, and the audience cheered.

Well, thanks for turning up, everybody. But it is far too early to give ourselves a pat on the back. The challenge of giving people in the Middle East the chance of a better life is not solved by lighting candles, emergency foreign aid, or hasty decisions about quotas.

And it certainly won’t be solved through the chaos of open frontiers. The images from Europe this summer invite both pity and alarm. Mature, democratic, wealthy nation states have demonstrably failed their citizens by failing to protect their borders.

Like the crisis in the Euro, the mayhem at Budapest’s Keleti station reflects the failed assumptions of the European project.

International order and lasting tranquility requires more than treaties. The preservation of liberty and peace requires the possession – and occasional use – of military might.

The tightening of borders and the turning back of asylum seekers is objectionable only to those who cannot see beyond the immediate crisis and recognise the challenge that stands before us.

Large-scale immigration by people whose cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds are markedly different from those of the host country is a relatively new phenomenon, and liberal Western societies are still learning.

“How European and North American societies are to meet the challenge of this new diversity is one of the key issues of the twenty-first century,” write Richard Alba and Nancy Foner in their recent comparative study of migration, Strangers No More.

No country has found the perfect recipe for an inclusive, fair and integrated society. “Each society fails and succeeds in different ways,” they write.

It is clear from their study that humanitarian migrants present the biggest challenge to an inclusive society. The evidence from Britain, France, German and the Netherlands is clear; those who arrive as refugees are less successful than other immigrants at building a better life.

Across these nations, refugees and their children consistently find it harder to get jobs. Their educational achievements are lower and their standards of living worse. They are far more likely to feel excluded, unattached and even hostile to the nation that gave them shelter than migrants who arrived under other circumstances.

Alba and Foner did not extend their study to Australia. Had they done so, it would have been surprising if they had not found a similar gap here between those who arrived under the humanitarian program and the rest.

Many will welcome the Australian government’s decision to accept 12,000 extra people from the Middle East under an extended humanitarian program.

Others are understandably cautious, knowing that the resettlement task cannot be accomplished with a mere stamp in the passport.

Nor can it be solved with welfare and government services. In the choice between welfare and gainful employment, welfare is always the worst solution, robbing families of hope and dignity.

We owe much more to those we welcome as asylum seekers. They deserve the gift that Australia has granted tens of millions of migrants for centuries: the opportunity to build a better life for themselves and their families. Everyone who migrates to this exceptional country deserves a fair go.

There has been little appetite to examine the different experiences of the two cohorts of migrants who have arrived in Australia, but we must.

The government must determine whether its selection process should be reviewed to ensure that every migrant to Australia is equipped to succeed in an increasingly service-based economy.

We know that migrants without language skills, literacy and the ability to adapt to Australian culture face almost impossible challenges. Unskilled jobs are limited and almost always less satisfying. Our humanitarian immigration program must be selective if it is to grant the best opportunities to the largest number of people.

If this was a moment to indulge in pride – and it is not – Australia’s story of immigration is one of the most successful in the world. It is built on two principles: a high per-capita, non-discriminatory but selective intake and strong borders.

Former prime minister John Howard articulated those principles memorably before the 2001 election. “We will be compassionate, we will save lives, we will care for people,” he promised. “But we will decide, and nobody else, who comes to this country.”

The images of anguished people crossing Europe’s broken borders serve as a reminder that a disorderly immigration program serves no-one’s interests. The uncontrolled arrival of several million migrants places impossible demands on host nations, even those as wealthy and sophisticated as Germany.

Australia must stick to the principles that have underpinned our humanitarian program from the beginning. Our response to the migration crisis must deliver more than a warm inner glow.

It is not enough to offer sanctuary. We must also offer hope.