The Australian government recently increased its intake of refugees by almost double. This came as a surprise given the government’s long-standing negative rhetoric on asylum seekers.  Understanding how this seemingly incongruous response emerged might provide lessons that could inform future advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers.

 As asylum seekers arrived in Europe in overwhelming numbers this year, the Australian government responded with a message of acceptance. These people were deemed legitimate and deserving of Australian assistance. Australia could and would help.

As tens of thousands of people streamed into Western Europe, the Australian media and government took notice. Yet why was there so little attention paid when these same people had earlier fled into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey? What is clear is that Australia’s response coincided with the focus of the whole narrative being dubbed ‘Europe’s refugee crisis’, and interest in these refugees only increased when the setting for the story became Western Europe.

Australia’s response was not concerned with relieving the massive burden on refugee host countries bordering Syria. Years of inaction have gone by during which these countries would have welcomed such support, and in 2015 their needs still continue to carry little weight.

 No doubt alliances between the nations of Western Europe and Australia created an impetus for Australia to get involved. Europe represents a cultural beacon to many people in Australia, including decision-makers in government. Because of this, Australia could not sit back and miss being part of the seemingly righteous response that some countries in Western Europe were now adopting. And while this policy about-face will enormously benefit the 12,000 refugees who will come to Australia, the policy is hypocritical in light of Australia indefinitely detaining other asylum seekers seeking protection.

So why were two sides of seemingly the same coin treated so differently by the Australian government and media?

Human emotion played a large part in the refugee stories that emerged from Europe, and was central to public responses around the world. The collective grief and shame surrounding the photo of a young child was certainly a catalyst. An asylum seeker was no longer the stereotypical young man from somewhere else, but was now an innocent child, like one you might know. The impetus to purge the distress and shame was intense and engaged the masses.

Unlike closer to home, as this story unfolded, the Australian government did not question the means by which people crossed borders, nor did it attack people’s motives for wanting to move through countries such as Hungary to reach more desired destinations. The key message was that Australia cares about these people.

By contrast, attempting to seek asylum in Australia by travelling from Indonesia by boat is still described by the government as illegal and irregular. The narrative employed (though not as loudly in recent months) is that people who seek this route bypass ‘regular processes’ to benefit themselves.

Politicians responded to the plight of Syrian refugees in Europe because there was a massive increase in constituents’ awareness of and interest in what was occurring. International media saturated Australian audiences with a new narrative, complete with images of refugees dressed in familiar clothing, with backpacks and water bottles. The images of refugees walking across such familiar terrain evoked the last large scale people movements that occurred in Europe during the world wars. These factors added up to a story that strongly connected with Western audiences: ‘That could be us’ people must surely have thought.

In Australia, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott did not lead a response to this plight; constituents led and politicians followed. The increased intake certainly had nothing to do with the Australian government having a newfound commitment to refugees, international laws and conventions, or humanitarian obligations.

Refugee advocates have often argued for an increased refugee intake (indeed, asking for less than what was granted this year) and demanded that Australia adhere to its obligations under the refugee convention and other laws, but such advocacy did not have much influence on this recent policy shift.

Australia’s change of heart was a response to popular opinion, and that is cause for some concern. Opinion can be uninformed and easily swayed, whereas refugee crises will continue, even after people’s interest moves onto another story. 

In order to sustain governments’ attention, citizens need to maintain high expectations and continue to care about a global crisis that can too easily exist out of sight and out of mind.

An effective refugee response requires policies that don’t change on the whim of politicians, or society’s emotions – but perhaps that’s fanciful.

It is understandable that such a tragic picture led to unprecedented reactions from governments as well what could be called the “new advocates” – pockets of society and media that had not voiced concern about refugees until now. Does this mean shifts in refugee policy hinge on flighty media providing damning evidence to a captivated and emotionally driven audience? How is commitment to the plight of refugees sustained in such a context?

While disparate groups of advocates may dream about ideal intake numbers, the laws that ought to be abided by, and the programs and approaches that ought to be taken, it will mean little unless the population as a whole is supportive. What should intakes be? What protections should be offered? What will happen upon the arrival of that boat, train or plane that tips the intake over the collectively accepted figure? To develop policy that can be sustained politically requires engaging people’s sense of compassion and fairness. People must be brought into the policy making process. These are questions that should engage people beyond the refugee sector and beyond the political establishment.

Australia’s decision to increase the Syrian intake was largely a reaction to the media engaging people’s hearts. People’s minds, which are better able to assess what is ‘fair’, were not engaged as strongly.

The similarity between Australia’s increased intake and its regime of detaining asylum seekers attempting to reach this country, is that both are based on a fragile decision-making process driven more by volatile emotions (and a volatile media) than by principle. To have a compassionate and, at the same time, fair and reasoned approach to refugee policy requires decisions being made and supported by the population at large, with a very fine balance of both heart and mind. Getting this balance right is the challenge of achieving justice. 

Tim Watson has worked in education and community development for over a decade and in the area of refugee resettlement in Australia since 2006. In 2011 he was commissioned by UNHCR to write a research paper on the role of public services, employment and the private sector in refugee resettlement.