Dear Mr Shahen
I am writing in relation to our recent correspondence and conversations regarding the plight of Assyrian refugees who have fled the turmoil of Iraq.
Further to representations I made on this matter to the Minister of immigration and Citizenship I, recently took the opportunity to raise my concerns in the Federal Parliament.
Please find enclosed a copy of my Grievance Debate speech which details the atrocities being committed against Assyrians in Iraq. I have also spoken of the need for Australia to be part of a tailored solution to restore peace and harmony in Iraq, as well as accommodate the religious refugees seeking protection.
I truly hope that raising these issues through the public forum of Parliament will make a difference.
If you require any further assistance in relation to this matter please do not hesitate to contact my office on 9829 7477.
CHRIS HAYES MP
Mr HAYES (Werriwa) (9.01 pm)â€”This year marks the 35th anniversary of the settlement in Australia of Vietnamese, the so-called original boat people in this country. In fact, yesterday was the actual date 35 years ago that the first Vietnamese refugees who escaped Vietnam on the cargo ship Truong Xuan arrived in Australia. Yesterday I met Captain Pham Ngoc Luy, who made the heroic voyage from Indonesia to South Vietnam, after hearing about the imminent fall of Saigon on Radio Australia, and rescued almost 4,000 people in their quest for freedom. A wave of refugees then followed, coming to our shores after the fall of Saigon. I do not need to remind the parliament that the Vietnam War, despite much controversy at the time in the West, was one in which Australia along with its allies was totally committed. Therefore, it fell to the governments of Australia, the US and others to take responsibility for the consequences of such a war. Accordingly, Australia decided to play its part and look after people who were displaced from Vietnam. We opened our arms and our shores to the innocent families who fled the communist regime. Clearly, we now celebrate the immense contribution the
Vietnamese refugees have made in Australia over the past 35 years. Mr Deputy Speaker, I invite you to recall that in 2003, notwithstanding the fact that the Labor Party did not support the war in Iraq, and nor was it sanctioned by the UN, Australia chose to be part of the â€˜Coalition of the Willingâ€™. We were assured that the invasion of Iraq was not about regime change but about weapons of mass destruction. No weapons were found. Instead, there was a restructure of the forces of influence in Iraq, regime change certainly occurred and a power vacuum ensued. As a result of this vacuum, tensions and conflicts between Shia and Sunni Iraqis escalated, resulting in thousands of Iraqis being displaced from their homes. Clearly, the unintended consequence of our involvement has been the systematic and consistent persecution of Christian minority groups in Iraq. Assyrians and Sabian Mandaeans in particular are now living with the constant threat of violence and persecution, which is all too real. I am not talking about organised militia groups who have chosen to engage in a fight. I am talking about innocent families, mums and dads, children, priests and other religious leaders who are being targeted, assaulted, and even killed because of their religious beliefs.
In May this year the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom released its annual report, which outlined the various threats and acts of violence experienced in countries the United States have designated as â€˜countries of particular concernâ€™ when it comes to religious freedom abuses. It would come as no surprise to many people that Iraq is one such country. The commissionâ€™s report states:
The religious freedom situation in Iraq remains grave, particularly for the countryâ€™s smallest, most vulnerable religious minorities. The violence, forced displacement, discrimination, marginalisation, and neglect suffered by members of these groups threatens these ancient communitiesâ€™ very existence in Iraq. These minorities, which include Chaldo-Assyrians and other Christians, Sabian Mandaeans â€¦ continue to experience targeted violence, receive inadequate official protection or justice â€¦.
If these words are not convincing enough that there is a real problem in Iraq, the statistics are chilling. According to the commissionâ€™s report, in 2003 there were approximately 1.4 million Catholics, Assyrians and Armenians living in Iraq. Today the number is down to about 500,000. Similarly, prior to the invasion there were 60,000 Mandaeans in Iraq; now there are somewhere between 3,500 and 5,000. The others have all left, fleeing for their lives.
If you doubt the atrocities being committed in Iraq against Christian minorities, I would also point to the Assyrian International News Agencyâ€™s July 2009 report Incipient genocide: the ethnic cleansing of the Assyrians of Iraq. It is truly an understatement to say this is totally disturbing. The details of this systematic and consistent persecution of Assyrians in Iraq include gruesome murders, extortion and violence. The report contains horrendous images of children who have been shot in cold blood because they chose to follow their faith. It shows the burnt out shells of churches which have been blown apart. It also puts a face to the many Assyrians who have been murdered. According to this report, 309 Assyrians have been murdered since the invasion in 2003. In addition to the murders, religious institutions and symbols are being targeted through specific bombings. Undoubtedly this inflicts terror and insecurity on the remaining Assyrian community. As a consequence of the violence, many Christian
Iraqis have fled to refugee camps in Syria and Jordan. Issues affecting refugees in Iraq and the timely processing of their visas are of particular concern to me.
More recently, I have made representations to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship concerning the situation in Syria which has been brought to my attention by local community members. I understand a number of departmental officials have been denied entry into Syria, which has significantly delayed the assessment of humanitarian visa applications for people who have fled Iraq. I also understand that the Syrian government is refusing to grant visas for
Australian officials unless they provide access to the files of refugees approved for resettlement in Australia. I find it alarming that these refugees are now being denied the opportunity to have their applications properly assessed by Australian officials because of these decisions by the Syrian government. We are certainly grateful to the Syrian government for looking after these people in the various refugee camps under their administration, but there is also a need for all governments to coordinate in the interests of these displaced people.
Clearly these people are displaced essentially because of the invasion of Iraq by the coalition of the willing and the consequences that have followed. Therefore, I believe that, along with the other members of the coalition of the willing, we have a moral responsibility, just aÂ we did in 1975, to deal with the consequences of the war. When the infamous weapons of mass destruction were not found, the then President of the United States saidâ€”and this was adopted by the then Prime Minister of Australia, John Howardâ€”that a world without Saddam Hussein would be a better world. That may be so. However, the aftermath of the 2003 invasionâ€” the persecution of Christian minorities and the growing list of displaced peopleâ€”is something that we need to recognise and address. The special needs of these people and the consequences of our involvement in Iraq will not simply fix themselves; they require a consistent effort on our part, over and above what we are duty-bound to do from our position and our commitments to the United Nations on refugee placement.
I reiterate that these people find themselves displaced because of our activities. They are suffering persecution, with extraordinary consequences for families. The vast majority have now moved. They reside elsewhere, in refugee camps, waiting for processing along with other refugees. These people cannot be returned or repatriated to that country that we not only invaded but also left. This is one of the consequences of that. This is something that should have been considered at the time, when the then Australian government decided to be part of the coalition of the willing. This is not going to fix itself. We must have a commitment because of the actions that we took back in 2003. This is a lasting legacy of that invasion. We need to make sure that we take the responsible, moral, correct position when it comes to the repatriation of these people, who have been displaced for reasons not of their making but as a consequence of an invasion of their country