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Monday, 3 June 2013
Page: 4876


Mr BOWEN (McMahon) (20:50): I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) the Assyrian population of Iraq continues to suffer persecution 10 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein; and

(b) since 2003, 600,000 Christian Assyrians have left Iraq, including many thousands to Australia; and

(2) being aware of the Assyrian aspirations for the establishment of an autonomous province, calls on the Government of Iraq to take all appropriate steps to protect the rights of minorities, including the Assyrian Christian people, and to support the continuation of their linguistic, cultural and religious traditions.

In 2005 I moved a motion in this House highlighting the plight of the Assyrian people of Iraq. It called on the Australian government to make representations to the then newly elected transitional government of Iraq to ensure that the Assyrian people, Chaldean people, Syriac people and Mandaean people of Iraq would be constitutionally recognised and guaranteed the right to freely exercise their customs, would be given the same protection by law enforcement and international security forces as other ethnic groups, and would be entitled to proper representation and participation in all levels of government. This was a motion moved those years ago which passed the House.

It pains me to say that all these years later the situation for the Assyrian people has worsened, not improved. Assyrians are tragically used to oppression. During the years of Saddam Hussein they are subject to the policies of the Ba'ath Party. They were victims, along with other groups, of the al-Anfal campaign of persecution in the late 1980s which saw many Assyrian villages in the north of Iraq destroyed and thousands of civilians killed. The Assyrian people and the Chaldean people celebrated the fall of Saddam Hussein in the hope that democracy would bring freedom—and I went to some of those celebrations here in Australia—but this has not been the case. The hopes and dreams of the Assyrian people have been dashed as the situation has worsened in Iraq.

Assyrians and Chaldeans are easy targets. As Christians they suffer violence as proxies. They are targeted as representatives for anger directed at the United States, Australia and the West. There have been many instances of this since 2003. Churches have been destroyed and Assyrian people have suffered. On Epiphany Day, 6 January 2008, five Assyrian churches were attacked in a coordinated assault and destroyed by car bombs. The deadliest attack against Assyrians since the war began was in 2010, in a Baghdad church attack which left at least 58 worshippers dead.

These are just a few instances of the persecution and violence that Assyrian and Chaldean people live under in Iraq. This has led to an exodus from Iraq as Assyrian people and Chaldean people have fled the violence and persecution. It is estimated that just 400,000 Assyrians remain in Iraq, many of them older Assyrians who have exhausted every last penny of their savings to fund the escape of their children. These are the indigenous people of Iraq. These are innocent people who have been driven from their country. They have fled to Jordan, to Lebanon, to Turkey and to Syria. Many of those who have fled to Syria over the last 10 years have since been forced to leave this haven where they were looking for at least some form of protection. These people were the primary target of the government's increase in the refugee component for the Middle East of 1,000 people affected by the Syrian crisis. I am very pleased to say that since I left the immigration portfolio I have kept in regular contact with progress in settling Assyrian, Chaldean and Mandaean people who have been affected by the Mandaean crisis. I have been very pleased to receive the updates on large numbers of people who have been resettled and given the chance of a new life in Australia.

This is the problem, but we must have a view to the solution. Having looked at this issue over many years and having worked with the Assyrian and Chaldean communities, having done much in relation to working with the Australian government and the successive foreign ministers—Smith, Rudd and Carr—on this issue, I have reached the view that the only sustainable solution is an autonomous region within Iraq, administered by Chaldeans and Assyrians.

In the north-west of Iraq lies the Nineveh plains, a 4,000 square kilometre area that is believed to have been and is the traditional heartland of the Assyrian people. The majority of its population is Christian, including many displaced Assyrians who came to the Nineveh plains to seek refuge. There have been calls for the establishment of an autonomous region in the Nineveh plains for the Assyrian people, and I support this call. This would help in establishing their own police and defence forces, such as other groups have been able to do. In 2010, 4,300 Christians fled the attacks in nearby Mosul and relocated to the Nineveh plains. They were joined in following years by Assyrians who, as I said, have left Syria because of the conflict there.

The idea of Assyrian autonomy is not new. It is not actually opposed, by all reports, by the current Iraqi government. President Jalal Talabani has said:

… there are areas where the Christians are a majority in Iraq, and we do not oppose the formation of a province …

He went on to say:

We believe that attention should be focused on healing the wounded Christians and to provide humanitarian aid … we do not want to displace a dear part of the Iraqi population, especially since the Christians are the indigenous people of Iraq, who lived in Iraq since the advent of Christianity, played a role in civilization and culture of Iraq.

This is also supported by other groups in Iraq.

While support has been expressed for this idea, action has not been forthcoming. I believe the time for talk has passed and the time for action has arrived. As I have said in this House in relation to other matters, there is an obligation on all governments to ensure the protection of all its citizens, regardless of their race or religion. That is an obligation which of course also applies in Iraq. I would foresee the situation—and it may at this point seem to be a dream or to be ambitious—where some of those Assyrians and Chaldeans could feel safe in returning to Iraq, that exodus could be reversed and the people who are living in very difficult situations in Syria, in Jordan, in Lebanon and in Turkey could return to their homeland, the nation of which they are indigenous people. If this autonomous region were developed and implemented it would not be an ambitious dream but could be the reality.

Around the world many Assyrians are working towards this, advocating for this. Many Assyrians are here in Australia. I recognise the Assyrian Universal Alliance and representatives present in the gallery tonight, Hermiz Shahen and David David, being the leaders of the delegation and being particularly forthright in representing the views of their people. The clergy, the various bishops, are represented here in Australia and around the world.

The situation facing Christian minorities in the Middle East is a crisis. It is a crisis which receives nowhere near enough attention in what is a busy and jam-packed national and international agenda. But it is a crisis which is real and which has seen good people and innocent people die, good people and innocent families leaving their homeland and facing uncertainty and desperate situations. I think it is incumbent on the nations around the world, those of us who were involved in the coalition of the willing and others, to face this issue square on and to work cooperatively with the government of Iraq and remind them of this.

This has been an issue that the Australian government has been active on. I know Foreign Minister Carr raised the issue with then Secretary of State Clinton and current Secretary of State Kerry and with Foreign Secretary Hague. He has done that in relation to the situation of Christians in the Middle East generally, the Syrian and Chaldean situations, the situation of the Copts of Egypt and others. So he, and we, should: this is an appropriate matter for the Australian parliament to be considering tonight.

We have a strong and vibrant Assyrian population, but an Assyrian population which has many sleepless nights, worried about the fate of their brothers and sisters, their cousins and, in many instances, their elderly parents who do not feel able to make the journey to safety but who live in constant fear of persecution and violence. They should live in that fear for no longer. If the measures that are proposed by the Assyrian community are adopted then that will be a reality. It is something that this House, I think, is right to consider this evening.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms Owens ): Is the motion seconded?