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Tuesday, 8 August 2006
Page: 3

Mr CADMAN (2:15 PM) —Mr Speaker, my question is addressed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Would the minister inform the House of action the government has taken to protect Australians who have been caught up in the conflict in Lebanon?

Mr DOWNER (Minister for Foreign Affairs) —Mr Speaker, first can I thank the honourable member for Mitchell for his question. He made many representations for support for constituents of his, and family and friends of constituents of his, who were caught in Lebanon after the fighting broke out on 13 July.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade started off with a situation where it was estimated there were 25,000 Australians in Lebanon and, with a tremendous amount of determination and in the most difficult circumstances imaginable, have evacuated 5,200 Australians or permanent residents and their families. Now, most of these people—not quite all, but most—have been evacuated to Cyprus and Turkey, using 16 voyages on six different chartered ships. The fact is, Mr Speaker, the evacuees were provided with transit accommodation and other assistance before boarding aircraft which were chartered by the government for a trip to Australia. And so far more than 4,600 of the evacuees have already returned to Australia.

I just want to make the point that the major phase of the evacuation is now complete but some capacity still remains. We obviously have to take into consideration, in particular, around 100 people who we believe—we are not sure—are trapped in southern Lebanon, who would like to get out and are unable to do so. So we are continuing to do everything we can to try to evacuate that group of people—working with the United Nations, the Red Cross, privately organised convoys and, obviously, other partner governments. But the security in southern Lebanon rather obviously remains very dangerous. It remains volatile, and any further evacuations would be extremely difficult.

I would like, in conclusion, to join with the Prime Minister and say that the officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade did a simply extraordinary job evacuating 5,200 people, 15,000 kilometres away. Some people were saying, ‘Well, the French can get people out, and the Spanish and so on.’ Those countries are on the Mediterranean Sea, as I think all members would be aware. Australia happens to be 15,000 kilometres away from the Mediterranean Sea and it was a simply massive undertaking for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Yesterday, I went down to the department and met with the officers who have done this excellent work at the Australian end, and I made the point to them that the Australian people were proud of what they had done. And I add—because she obviously could not be there—that we are very proud of what the ambassador, Lyndall Sachs, and her staff over there in Beirut have done, in trying circumstances, and showing enormous courage.