The Refugee Council has accused Australian immigration officials of “cherry picking” Middle Eastern refugees to be resettled in Australia.
“I don’t think anyone expected that the program would be weighted as strongly towards Iraqi Christians as it now appears,” Paul Power, the council’s CEO, told 7.30.
“No-one can argue that those who are getting resettlement to Australia need resettlement.
“But there are millions of refugees in the middle east in need of resettlement and for Australia to cherry pick people from perhaps 1 to 3 per cent of the refugee population in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon really doesn’t reflect at all well on Australia.”
Mr Power said it was wrong to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis with a program that prioritises persecuted minorities, when the vast majority of Syria’s nearly 5 million refugees are Muslim — many who have suffered their own persecution at the hands of the Assad regime and Shia militias because they are Sunnis.
“It’s pretty clear that religious minorities are not the only people who have fled,” Mr Power said.
“In fact, the religious minorities are represented in only a small way amongst the refugee populations in Jordan and Lebanon.”
Last September, in the wake of outrage over the drowning of the Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, former prime minister Tony Abbott announced Australia would take in 12,000 extra refugees fleeing conflict in Iraq and Syria.
The Government will not reveal how many of the extra 12,000 refugees will come from that program and how many from the UNHCR.
Head of the UN refugee agency in Jordan, Australian Andrew Harper, showed Immigration Minister Peter Dutton around the camps last September.
Mr Harper has now openly criticised Australia’s approach.
“The concern that we have is that these may not be necessarily the most vulnerable people,” he said.
“When the government announced it was going to take 12,000 Syrian refugees and was going to be working through UNHCR, we would expect that those 12,000 refugees would come from UNHCR.
“What we have probably seen is … possibly a change in the criteria, where many more people are going through parallel programs to UNHCR.
“We are aware that some countries would prefer to take Christians or other minorities but that does not necessarily mean that they are the most vulnerable.
“We don’t choose submissions based on religion or ethnicity — we choose it on whether people can survive or not.”
There is concern at why so many UN referred cases have not been accepted yet.
7.30 has learnt that over 1,400 vulnerable Syrian refugees were referred to Australia by the UN but are currently stuck in limbo.
Until Australia officially rejects these cases the UN cannot try and send them anywhere else.
So in the meantime they may have missed out of being referred to another country like Canada, which has taken 25,000 refugees since last November, or the US, which is looking for 11,000 case referrals in the next three months.
“We have referred quite a few Syrians to Australia,” Mr Harper said.
“We are now trying to determine how we can help move that forward, because we obviously need to ensure those people who are in need of international protection and who are considered the most vulnerable are moved out.
“Canada moved very quickly. The US is moving very quickly. We now have to see how we can help Australia move quickly.”
Mr Dutton said Australia would not rush the processing of any referrals.
“I don’t have any complaint about the referrals they’re making,” he said.
“But ultimately the Government decides who it is we accept in this country and we’re not going to step back from that.”
The lucky ones: ‘We were so happy at the news’
In November Manhal Al Fadous was told Australia was considering taking him and his family as part of its Syrian refugee program.
Four years earlier they fled fierce fighting and daily raids on their home town of Homs in Syria.
Their home was destroyed and they lost everything.
“When they rang me I was asleep,” he said.
“I was so happy I quickly woke up, woke up the whole family, we celebrated, we were so happy at this news.”
But since then only 29 refugees have actually arrived in Australia as part of that program.
When 7.30 first spoke to him, Manhal and his family were still in a small town in Jordan near the Syrian border — they had heard nothing since the telephone interview.
Mr Dutton is unapologetic about the pace of processing.
“My first responsibility is to the Australian people, to make sure that we keep our community safe,” Mr Dutton said.
“I want to make sure we have a look at each of the applications in fine detail and we’re working through that very carefully.
“And I think what people have seen in Brussels, what they’ve seen in Paris and elsewhere is only a taste of what is to come.”
A day after 7.30 visited Manhal Al Fadous and his family, he finally got the call he had been waiting for.
They had been accepted under the Australia program.
“Of course we are happy,” Manhal said.
“Our life will change soon; we won’t be worried and stressed as we are now.
“The other important thing is, where is the location with the least amount of snakes and crocodiles?”
They are the lucky ones — thousands of others remain in limbo.
Source : ABC NEWS