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Refugee Council of Australia: world on brink of humanitarian ‘catastrophe’ -

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MARK COLVIN: The Refugee Council of Australia says the world is on the brink of what it calls a humanitarian 'catastrophe'.

It's calling on the Australian Government to re-settle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, in communities around the nation.

The council says such action could also lead to economic advantages for Australia.

Penny Timms reports.

PENNY TIMMS: As political debate intensifies about what Australia should be doing to help re-settle Syrian refugees, those experienced in the area say a multi-pronged approach is needed.

Phil Glendenning is the president of the Refugee Council of Australia.

He says this is the most significant refugee crisis since World War Two, and Australia's response needs to reflect that.

PHIL GLENDENNING: Robert Menzies, in one year, 1949 to 1950, resettled some 49,500 people from Europe into Australia. Malcolm Fraser after Vietnam, more than 36,000 in one calendar year.

Now the numbers that are being talked about at the moment are more in the vicinity of 20,000 Syrians, and probably increasing our humanitarian uptake reasonably up to 30,000 people: those things are doable.

And this is a crisis of the type we have not seen for 70 years and it's going to require special measures, and it's going to require Australia to do more than we have done.

PENNY TIMMS: Mr Glendenning says it's important for the Government to send both a humanitarian and political message to the world.

PHIL GLENDENNING: It is terribly important that countries like Australia resettle people - and the reason it's important is A: it provides safety to those people, but B: it sends a message to those other countries, the neighbouring countries that they need to keep their borders open in the knowledge that the rest of the world will step up and stump up and lend a hand to resettle people.

Because if they begin to close their borders, then we are really looking at a major catastrophe.

PENNY TIMMS: As part of that push, he says Australia needs to contribute $150 million to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

PHIL GLENDENNING: That's to care for the Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries to Syria. The United Nations requires $4.1 billion to care for those people there, but unfortunately the world is has only stumped up 31 per cent of that.

So when people begin to say, "Why are they moving on from Turkey? Why are they moving on from Jordan?" Well it's because in those the places, the resources aren't there for people to get adequate shelter, food and healthcare.

PENNY TIMMS: In addition, he wants Australia to re-settle at least 20,000 refugees from Syria, in communities around Australia rather than detention centres.

More to the point, he says, the conflict shows no sign of easing and therefore any offer of resettlement needs to be permanent.

PHIL GLENDENNING: Now of course, if the situation back in their home country settles down, many of those people would opt to go home.

PENNY TIMMS: He says it's also time for Syrian refugees being held in detention to be released back into Australia.

PHIL GLENDENNING: The 30 Syrians, who are currently held in detention in Australia and Nauru and Manus probably need to be released into the community at the moment.

Some of those people have been incarcerated for over three years. We think that is unconscionable when you look at the situation of what's happening in their country.

PENNY TIMMS: Mr Glendenning says the cost of community resettlement is less than detention.

He also believes that housing refugees in Australian communities will provide a much needed economic boost.

PHIL GLENDENNING: The refugee communities who come bring with them a demand for goods and services that tends to expand and grow the economy. So while there would be some setup costs, over time we've seen historically that the economy's grown and, you know, jobs are created out of that process.

PENNY TIMMS: Ken Myers is the national director of Helping Hands International Australia.

The group helps refugees adapt to a new life in Australia through initiatives like providing language lessons.

He says the gratitude shown by those he comes into contact with is second to none.

KEN MYERS: We are there to help support them. And they all repay us back by getting into the community. Those who have work rights are all working and earning. You know, they're all doing what they need to do. They're all learning English, they're all getting better at it.

They're just continuing to keep on.

PENNY TIMMS: He says helping refugees resettle is a community effort, not just something that's left up to the Government. And the rewards can be priceless.

His wife Ros even helps support women during childbirth.

KEN MYERS: Our first baby that Ros was in the room for, Ros has no formal training - she's not a nurse, she's just a mum. After everything's all happened, everything's going well, dad phones home, talking in their language, and then the next thing he puts the phone in Ros' ear and says, "Here aunty, you talk!"

And the people back in the home country are in tears of joy, saying thank you to Ros for being there to help her sister have a baby when she wasn't able to get support from her real family.

PENNY TIMMS: Australia has a history of providing help. During the conflict in Kosovo, the Howard government took in an additional 4,000 refugees on temporary visas.

Prior to that, the Hawke government granted asylum to 42,000 Chinese students after images emerged of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

MARK COLVIN: Penny Timms.