Asylum Seekers and Refugees

Asylum Seekers and Refugees

(Motion, 10 September 2015, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)

I move:

      That this House:
        (1) Acknowledges the contribution made to New South Wales by those who have sought asylum, refugees, and other immigrants, including those on 457 visas.
        (2) Notes that seeking asylum is a human right and asylum seekers, refugees and other immigrants should be treated with respect and dignity.
        (3) Commends the Baird Government for its compassionate approach towards asylum seekers and refugees, including providing the most generous travel concessions in Australia. 
        (4) Notes that the people of New South Wales are welcoming of the refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war and destruction who need safe passage to a new home.

My husband watched with pride as his home town of Frankfurt welcomed refugees from the heartbreaking devastation and war in Syria. I know from speaking to colleagues and constituents that the people of New South Wales are ready to welcome refugees from the global humanitarian crisis and want our Government to help facilitate their safe passage. Just this morning I was talking to Barney Gardner from Millers Point about how empty homes yet to be sold in Millers Point, Dawes Point and the Rocks, including the large Sirius building, could be used for emergency, temporary or more permanent housing. I urge the Government to consider the idea. Cities are multicultural and welcoming places where displaced people can find a new home. 

Australia is a country of migrants and refugees, with 28 per cent of its population born overseas, and half live in Sydney or Melbourne. An estimated 823,000 refugees have settled here since 1901. In my electorate, large numbers of people from 200 countries make up our diverse community. Australia is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which requires us to provide protection and support to people who fear being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, or who are outside their country and cannot return to their home. People seek asylum in order to be assessed as refugees. Sadly, our governments have often demonised, shut out and exposed people seeking asylum from harm, rather than protecting and supporting them.

Syria has suffered under a brutal regime for 40 years, with support from western governments. The massive democratic uprising in 2010-11 was harshly suppressed. The Syrian Government released a large number of terrorist prisoners and unleashed the civil war that we see playing out today. Of a population of 23 million, more than 240,000 people have been killed, with perhaps 11,000 killed in prison. There are 150,000 political prisoners. Half the population has been displaced by the conflict. There are 7.6 million internally displaced people and four million refugees. About 650,000 people are trapped in conflict zones, with the Syrian Government using illegal barrel bombs against areas where people have rebelled. In this power vacuum, some neighbouring countries and extremist groups have added to the conflict to further their own geopolitical purposes.

In Syria there has been a massive movement of refugees. More than 2,000 people are known to have died fleeing the war, of which 75 per cent were women and children. The image of Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach has stimulated a massive outpouring of compassion as people have realised that these are real people. Aylan's mother and sibling both died trying to reach safety. We have seen many images of families landing in boats, exhausted and then walking to safety.

Germany, France and the United Kingdom have all responded by increasing their refugee intake. In June this year 568,000 people were awaiting the outcome of asylum claims in Europe. Germany is expected to accept 800,000 new asylum applications this year alone. Angela Merkel, in particular, has shown positive leadership to counter the inevitable racism and xenophobia that comes with the fear of change, saying that there will be a zero tolerance approach to those who do not respect the human rights and dignity of people seeking protection We have seen ordinary people across Europe reaching out with food, water, clothing, care and welcome. I have been contacted by constituents who say that they are willing to share their home with a refugee family and to provide practical help. Similar sentiments are being expressed across Australia.

The situation in Syria is dire, but it is part of a much larger crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] says that there were 60 million people displaced by persecution and conflict at the end of 2014. There are 38 million internally displaced persons, 20 million refugees and two million asylum seekers whose claims are yet to be processed. Those figures do not include refugees from climate change. I commend the New South Wales Government for its move to provide travel concessions to asylum seekers from 1 January next year. It is a practical measure that will help people who have left everything behind to get back on their feet. I thank the Premier and Leader of the Opposition for their words before question time yesterday that demonstrate that New South Wales wants to do more to help in this crisis.

It is impossible for us to imagine the fear and panic of the thousands of people fleeing persecution and death. Many people in New South Wales feel helpless when watching this on the news, but we can help; we can do more. I hope that we see further offers of financial aid and further increases in the refugee intake to assist people who are fleeing this cruel and non-discriminating global humanitarian crisis. I commend the motion to the House.

Read Full Debate HERE

In reply:

I thank the member for Coogee, the member for Riverstone, the member for Summer Hill, the member for Lakemba, the member for Castle Hill, the member for Granville, the member for Fairfield, the member for Newtown, the member for Balmain and my Independent colleague, the member for Lake Macquarie, for their contributions to the debate. It is wonderful that members from across this Parliament have come together on a motion that talks about the importance of welcoming people who are in devastating and desperate situations in Syria and around the world during the global humanitarian crisis. The motion is particularly important because Australia does not have the best record on dealing with asylum seekers and refugees.

We know that the Australian Government cut the refugee program by one-third in 2013 while the world's displacement crisis was growing to its highest level in 70 years. The Australian Government cut overseas aid and funds to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] and shifted funds from humanitarian programs into military responses. That may very well include bombing in the region, which could cause further displacement and more civilian tragedies. We know that we do not have the best record on holding people in offshore detention centres while paying a great deal of money to do it. We have spent $55 million for Cambodia to take just four refugees, one of whom has already left. The Senate inquiry into Nauru uncovered more than 67 cases of child abuse, as well as sexual assault and the death of an asylum seeker in detention. Media reports have exposed poor management and spying on Federal members of Parliament. The Government has announced that operators of the facilities will have their contracts renewed. 

In response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria the Australian Government first committed to taking 4,400 people from Syria and Iraq instead of other countries, which is 30 per cent of the 13,750 places Australia provides under the Refugee and Humanitarian Program—a tiny number. Fortunately, after the encouragement of many people within the Federal Government, the Federal Opposition, the Federal crossbench and the State Parliament, the Government increased the number. Along with all speakers in this debate, I welcome the fact that the Federal Government has now offered to take 12,000 permanent Syrian refugees beyond the existing humanitarian increase and announced an extra $44 million in funding to the UNHRC. I share community concern that, just as war does not discriminate against whom it harms, we should not discriminate amongst refugees based on their religion or ethnic background.

Pressure continues for the Australian Government to increase the overall refugee intake during this crisis. Constituents who have contacted me have supported a big increase to the Australian refugee intake and to aid to provide crisis support to the many thousands of people who have fled their homes. What they have not been calling for is increased bombing. I hope my motion goes some way to lighting the dark in this desperate situation. I thank the Premier, the Leader of the Opposition and all members who have spoken strongly in support of my motion today. I thank Federal Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and others who continue to be strong advocates for asylum seekers and refugees. I also thank the President of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, for her amazing and outstanding work. As I said, I hope this motion helps to light the dark in a desperate and heartbreaking situation. Many people in New South Wales are looking forward to welcoming the Syrian refugees to their home towns and cities. I commend the motion to the House.

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