Australia will take 12,000 Syrian refugees in addition to its existing humanitarian intake but will focus its offer on “women, children and families from persecuted minorities” who are currently in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the government has said, as part of a wider announcement that Royal Australian Air Force planes will participate in airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria and an additional $44 million will be provided to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

The limitation of help to “persecuted minorities” appears to rule out the approximately 60% of Syrians who are Sunni Muslims and who have been disproportionately targeted by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in Syria have been targeted by Islamic State — but so too have Shiite Muslims, who have been massacred in their hundreds, and probably thousands, by IS across Syria and Iraq (especially the latter). And Kurds, who are predominantly Sunni, are at war with IS across Syria and Iraq (no one has spoken up for atheists, who are also targeted by IS).

But for all its brutality, IS hardly compares to the Assad regime, which, in slaughtering perhaps a quarter of a million of its own people, has disproportionately targeted Sunni Muslims with airstrikes, artillery, chemical weapons, rape and torture.

The targeting of Syria’s Sunni majority by Assad (whose regime is Alawite, a faction of Shia Islam) was a deliberate ploy to turn what commenced as a broad-based uprising against his regime into a sectarian conflict (Human Rights Watch provides evidence for sectarian targeting here, here and here, including evidence that Christians were left alone by regime forces in mixed communities while Sunnis were targeted; the Syrian Network for Human Rights has also described the targeting of Sunnis).

Even before the emergence of Islamic State, enraged Sunnis from other countries were pouring into Syria in response to Assad’s slaughter of his own Sunni citizens. The regime’s tactics included not merely using military force against civilians but rounding up of Sunni men for torture and the rape of Sunni women in prison (for its part, Islamic State encourages rape of non-Sunni women). Assad’s chemical weapons attack in August 2013, which killed several hundred and perhaps over 1000 people, was in Ghouta, a predominantly Sunni town.

Sunni Muslims can no more return to Syria than Christians, atheists or Shiites. If they do, a regime — backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah — awaits them with airstrikes, heavy weapons, soldiers and militias.

Asked to describe the “persecuted minorities” the one-off intake would be composed of, Abbott referred to a number of Christian, Jewish and Muslims groups, as well Yazidis and Kurds, but indicated the priority would be those who would be unable to return to Syria, singling out Christians as an example. It also appears that single men will not be permitted as part of the 12,000. One unnamed Coalition MP in discussing Australia’s intake yesterday called for “no more Muslim men”.

The slaughter in Syria doesn’t discriminate, and nor should we. The government deserves credit for helping address what is a global crisis, but the decision is badly tarnished by its reliance on religious discrimination to determine who will benefit from Australia’s offer.

Peter Fray

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