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Thursday, 10 March 1977

Mr INNES (Melbourne) -In October 1976 I rose in this House to deplore the plight of Lebanese refugees stranded in Nicosia and other points around the Mediterranean. I rise in March 1977, almost 5 months later, again to deplore the plight of these benighted people and to condemn the Government in the strongest terms for its attitude towards them. In the meantime the Government has compounded its guilt for the injury it has done to these people. Many of those of whom I spoke on the last occasion are still there. They are victims of despair and hopelessness because the Government will not do those simple things which the Lebanese people in Australia cry out for it to do. Leaders of the Lebanese community in Australia know the gravity of the situation and have told me many harrowing tales of their countrymen, their relatives, who have been stuck in Nicosia for months sustained only by what Australian Lebanese are able to send them. The Lebanese here have had to go heavily into debt to raise the thousands of dollars necessary to keep their relatives in Nicosia from penury and destitution.

I have recently returned from Nicosia. The proof that these stories are true is there for anyone to see. Hundreds of the hopeless can be seen milling around the immigration office where our immigration officers do their best to cope with the mess that this Government has created. I have already outlined to the House the events of last year and I do not intend to go over that ground again. It is necessary to refer to one thing that the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (Mr MacKellar) did last year which was not necessarily wrong in principle but which was disastrous in the effect that it has had in our handling of the Lebanese refugee situation. It will be remembered that the Minister relaxed the entry criteria to allow members of the extended Lebanese family to come to Australia with maximum speed and minimum discomfort. This was not a bad thing in itself but a disaster given the circumstances at the time. In the first place the Minister obviously had no conception of what Lebanese regard as an extended family- a concept which goes well beyond the Australian understanding of members of the immediate family circle. In the second place there were hundreds of people already in Nicosia and other

E laces whose applications for entry to Australia ad not been processed. Their chances of having the applications processed were greatly diminished by the Minister's actions.

The result of what the Minister did was a flood of Lebanese into Cyprus and other places which aggravated in particular the situation in Cyprus and made the task of overworked immigration officers even more difficult. Many of the people already in Cyprus were category A immigrants, that is, mothers, fathers or dependent children of Lebanese people living in Australia. They left Lebanon and went to Cyprus and other centres on the understanding that they would be coming on to Australia once they had satisfactorily passed medical and character checks. They went to Cyprus on the understanding that they would be there for two or three weeks only before they were approved to join their families in Australia. For many the waiting period has been three or four months and for some it has been six or seven months and more. There are now arrangements for people to go back to the immigration office in Nicosia as late as 3 April this year. These people have left, or sold up, their assets in Lebanon. They survive in Cyprus on what their relatives in Australia are able to send them. I can produce evidence in the form of currency receipts from a range of people to indicate the amount of money that has been sent. In particular one man has sent more than $5,000 to a relative in Cyprus. The man sending the money is not a rich man, nor is his case uncommon. He is worried because, as most of us would, he finds the burden of supporting a family here and dependants overseas an overwhelming load to carry. Many have paid out much more. The total needed to sustain Lebanese refugees runs into millions of dollars.

It is true that many hundreds of category B refugees- brothers and sisters and others who fall into that category of Australian Lebanesecame to Australia in the first heady days of the relaxed entry criteria when this Government was trying to demonstrate that it had the right approach to the refugee problem. Good luck to those who came and to the relatives who sponsored them, but in the process many hundreds of others were disappointed. Many of these people left their homes and possessions because they had faith in what this Government had led them to believe, and their faith was sadly misplaced. Of course not only the Lebanese in Australia have found their faith misplaced. That is the first part of this lamentable story. Hundreds and hundreds of people had their hopes raised only to be cruelly dashed. They face the alternatives of continuing to subsist on Cyprus against the day when the Government here will stop bungling and bring them to Australia or of being forced to return to Lebanon to blighted and uncertain futures. The price of that bungling is the despair of the refugees and the heavy financial burden on the Lebanese community in Australia.

A second part of the story is connected with the first and again involves what amounts to a false pretence on the part of this Government. In the early days of relaxed criteria and the window dressing by the Minister, many Lebanese came to Australia on the strength of quickly processed medical checkups. In case anyone thinks I am using the tragedy of the dispossessed and desolate people to make political capital let me put to the House what has been put to me by members of the Lebanese community. I refer to a signed document which I will table if needs be. I sent a copy of it to the Minister some weeks ago. I have never received a reply. It puts certain points and no reasonable, humane man could say that the members of the Lebanese community are asking for anything excessive. They ask that immediate steps be taken by the Australian Government to re-establish the Australian embassy in Lebanon so that all new nominations may be dealt with from an embassy in that country. Due to circumstances beyond their control many people are being forced to return to that country because they cannot afford to stay in Cyprus. They run out of money and then return to Lebanon without their goods and chattels.

The members of the Lebanese community ask that the present policy which excludes a total family from emigrating to Australia where one member fails the medical examination be altered so that only the seriously medically unfit members may be excluded. They ask that the applications of large numbers of Lebanese presently stranded in Nicosia be processed as a matter of urgency so that those wishing to emigrate to Australia may do so immediately. The Lebanese community here regards this matter as one of extreme urgency, as it would relieve the suffering of the refugees and would lift from their relatives the burden of having to pay the huge cost of supporting them in Cyprus. The Lebanese community in Australia is understandably disturbed and frustrated by the Australian response to the refugee problem. The reopening of the embassy is of the utmost importance, because clearly it would help Australian officers to assess the applicants on the spot. It would speed up the processing procedures. Major powers are now operating embassies at Beirut. The explanation I got for our embassy not being reopened was that the Canadians are not there. What has that to do with the situation? There should be no inhibition on Australia reopening its post there.

There is a whole range of issues to which I would like to refer, but it is clear that I have not the time to do so. It is absolutely necessary that even now the Government reinforce the staff of the immigration post at Nicosia. What is the situation? The Government is now looking at staff ceiling levels. When I was at Nicosia just a fortnight or so ago, literally hundreds of people were nulling around the immigration office, standing there like cattle, and being processed at a rate that was deplorable. That was not the fault of the staff at that post They have done a magnificent job. I have already referred to that. The man whom the Government sent to Damascus ought to have been awarded the Victoria Cross. There was a failure to take advantage of the situation or of the opportunities there. The expectancies of people were raised. Yet the Government did not ave the capacity nor the machinery to handle the situation. As I have said, the staff have worked diligently and under the most difficult conditions to cope with the situation, which is impossible given the number of distressed refugees. I have seen the desperate situation. I once again urge the Minister to do something about it.

There was a question of refusal on medical grounds. The Minister can go to the leaders of the Lebanese community in Australia to check these facts. He has probably had some contact with them. They have certainly contacted me and expressed their disappointment in the strongest terms. Mild heart murmurs, diabetes and a host of other chronic conditions which pose no threat to anyone other than the sufferer are now given as sufficient reasons for rejection on medical grounds. It has been suggested by my informants in the community that the reasons for rejection are so vague that people suspect that they have been turned down because they are too fat, they are too thin or they do not wash behind their ears. There must be a reason for the huge difference between virtually no rejections on medical grounds between August and December of last year and the present high incidence of rejections. The Minister's adviser shakes his head. His information might differ from some of the information and evidence that I have. There must be a reason for this huge difference. As far as I am concerned, this issue is of maximum importance. Committees were set up in the latter part of last year. I should refer quickly again to the high incidence of rejections since that time. There must be some explanation. It is not enough to say that the rejections are based on the declining health of those people who are stranded in Nicosia. The Government set up immigration committees to deal with category A applicants alone. Yet from what I can ascertain these committees are very disturbed, on the one hand, at the length of time which refugees have had to languish in places such as Nicosia and, on the other hand, at the current extraordinarily large number of rejections on medical grounds. If there is any real doubt about that matter, approach the Lebanese community and ask them. I ask for permission to incorporate in Hansard a letter from the Lebanese community to me.

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