I, too, thank very much the minister for bringing forward this important motion today. It has been impossible for us to ignore the refugee crisis playing out across the world today, particularly as it relates to Syria.
Every day it is on our screens, in our newspapers and on our radios. Civilians in Syria are being attacked and forced to flee their homes and their communities. They are not alone, but Syria is certainly capturing the world’s attention at the moment. As a wealthy, developed nation Australia has an obligation to, not only accept asylum seekers, but also to help nations surrounding Syria, in particular, to cope with the refugee crisis. I acknowledge the firm support the ACT government has thrown, particularly through statements of welcome from our minister, Minister Yvette Berry, and the services that the ACT government fund to assist asylum seekers settling in the ACT.
Disruption in the region of Syria has resulted in mass displacement. It is estimated that around 11.5 million people have been displaced both internally and externally. The external displacement has seen a mass exodus of Syrians seeking a better life in the European Union. While many Syrians are looking for a permanent home in the EU most seem to have a desire to one day return to Syria to live and many wish to remain in the region. They want to help their children in gaining a good education and want to support themselves in the interim until they can return to a peaceful Syria to live once again.
I was reflecting this morning on some emails I had exchanged with someone of Syrian background who is known to some members on this side of the chamber, Sham Sara, and I was reminding myself that in late 2011 when he was in London studying we exchanged emails and I was seeking to get some reassurance from him that his family back home in Syria were okay. In late 2011 he sent me a message saying, “Yes, there’s some fighting. They tend to get used to it. But my family is a long way from the fighting.”
In March 2012 we again exchanged some messages and he said that they were starting to get a little worried. His mother had just gone home for a family visit but that we were probably more alarmed about it over here seeing a brief record of what was happening in Syria on TV screens. As he said, they were a little more used to it. But it made him and his family very nervous. We look now at what is happening three years later and I do not think anyone could have imagined the grief and tragedy that is playing out in Syria and around the region and around the world today because of this conflict that has been going on for four long years.
It is undeniable that Australia must do something to assist with this crisis. As Minister Berry stated, we have done it before when refugees fled violence in Latin America and in Kosovo, and we will do it again. Australia’s obligation in this area is twofold: firstly, we must assist countries in the surrounding region who are supporting the many Syrians leaving their homes. The federal government must send more support to countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan which are currently supporting millions of refugees. With the help of international organisations such as UNICEF, the UNHCR and the world food program, Syria‘s neighbours are working hard to help those displaced people to live in dignity, and Australia must provide humanitarian assistance. Secondly, and closer to home, Australia must accept and look after Syrian asylum seekers as we must with all asylum seekers.
I echo Minister Berry’s statement that the ACT government welcomes the federal government’s decision to accept an intake of 12,000 humanitarian entrants. The ACT has a long and proud history of welcoming and offering support to refugees and asylum seekers. The minister’s recent announcement declaring the ACT, in particular, a refugee welcome zone is a continuation of this tradition.
This declaration is the ACT’s commitment to welcoming refugees into our community, showing compassion towards refugees and upholding their human rights. Canberra is home to residents from just under 200 nationalities, including many refugees from countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, the Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan more recently and a number of European refugees from after World War II and a number of refugees from South East Asia throughout the 60s and 70s.
Institutions in the ACT and, more importantly, the ACT government play a significant role in welcoming, educating and supporting asylum seekers who settle in our territory. Our government is essential to ensuring asylum seekers have access to services and are able to properly settle into our city and become part of our community.
It is important to note that in 2011 the ACT government identified a need to guarantee easily accessible services to asylum seekers whose claims were still being processed.
As the minister has mentioned, the access card was introduced then as a means for refugees to access services without standard documentation such as concession or Medicare cards. This practical step makes a real difference to accessing essential services.
The territory also runs the work experience and support program, a fantastic program that supports refugees with their entrance into the workforce. The program trains participants in formal office skills, provides work experience and grants a certificate II in business to graduates.
I would like to recognise the work of the Migrant and Refugee Settlement Services, MARSS, in providing a large range of support services for asylum seekers. In particular, MARSS runs many programs designed to support young children and teenagers. MARSS provides, for example, free homework tutoring for refugee children and organises social events for young refugees to partake in.
As the Chief Minister, the minister and other members have noted, this issue goes right to the core of our city’s identity. We are generous, compassionate and open to the world. I recall on many occasions a former Minister for Multicultural Affairs, John Hargreaves, making the distinct point that Canberra is one of the most multicultural cities in the country from the representation of embassies and high commissions in this city to the many diverse communities around our territory.
The ACT should continue to be proud of its continual commitment to welcoming and providing support for asylum seekers. Canberra is a wonderful place to live, and the inclusion of people from a diverse array of cultural backgrounds and experiences only serves to strengthen our community. I welcome the ACT government’s announcement that it is preparing to welcome refugees into our community, and I welcome the government and minister’s leadership on this matter.