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Thursday, 10 March 1977

Mr STEWART (Lang) -The matter of public importance under discussion reads:

The Government's incompetent handling of the Lebanese refugee problem.

Incompetence is the reason for the Opposition taking up the matter. We are not making any complaints about the efforts that have been made by officers in the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs whether here or overseas. We are making a complaint, and a strong one, about the incompetence of the Government in the Lebanese situation. Our complaint is based on the fact that during the last couple of years, when the conflict in the Lebanon has become worse, the Government at no time has given a clear indication of the guidelines for Lebanese migrants to Australia. I do not have to mention the closing of the Beirut embassy, and I do not have to mention the closing of the Damascus office. Those closures were done without due consideration. When the office opened in Nicosia it was patently clear to anyone who had bothered to look at the situation that the task force that was sent there in emergency would not be sufficient to handle the volume of applications that would come in. The Minister made play on the definition of refugee or quasi-refugee. The Opposition does not care one iota about the definition of refugee or quasi-refugee. We are interested in the fact that these people wishing to come to Australia are men and women. If I may quote from the Merchant of Venice, it was Shylock who said:

If you prick us, do we not bleed?

The situation in Lebanon has created many harrowing experiences for a great number of people. In Australia in the post-war years we have been accepting a large number of Lebanese people. They have left some of their family in the Lebanon. Because of the conflict in Lebanon they became worried about the future of their near relatives there. In many cases their homes have been completely destroyed and perhaps the husband or the brother of the person out here has been killed in the conflict. The Lebanese people have a tied family system. They are worried. They have every entitlement to be worried. Yes, they bleed.

I speak on this matter because I have an electorate perhaps unique in Australia. Within my electorate there is a mosque and 2 churches of different branches of the Christian religion. So Lebanese activities in the electorate of Lang are particularly strong. Within the confines of my electorate, the electorate of Grayndler and one or two others around my area there has been a large influx of Lebanese people. They come to us continually wanting to bring out their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews or cousins because they feel for their relatives in the Lebanon. I have found in the last 15 months or so that I am completely and utterly useless in trying to assist them. I accept their applications. I send them in to the Department with a covering letter. The people come back within a fortnight to find out whether I have received an answer. I check with the Department, which has perhaps sent the applications to Nicosia. Because of the shortage of staff in Nicosia and the large volume of people attending at that office there is a long delay.

I mention as an example a man who went to Nicosia in October last year to see whether he could get his sister, her husband and their family out to Australia. They were intereviewed and medically examined in October. They were told that everything looked satisfactory and all that was being waited on was approval from Australia. While this man was there he paid to a travel agent the amount of fares for his sister, brother-in-law and family. He then found that he could get fares cheaper from another travel agent. He asked for a refund and he was given a refund. He was then told by the first travel agent that his sister would never get to Australia. There is now a holdup concerning the identity of his sister. He has produced statutory declarations to say that she is his sister. He has told me and other Lebanese people in my electorate have told me of bribes, favouritism, delays and the huge cost to them in maintaining their relatives in Nicosia or perhaps in the Lebanon.

Mr MacKellar - Are you accusing officers of the Department of taking bribes?

Mr STEWART - I am not accusing the officers of the Department of taking bribes; I am accusing people like the man the Minister mentioned.

Mr MacKellar - Lebanese people?

Mr STEWART - I am suggesting they are Lebanese people for the most part. I am also suggesting that there are organisations within Australia that are charging some of their own countrymen $100 to fill out an application form and to have it processed. I do not make any accusations, but the suggestion is that perhaps if a person pays the $100 then his sister or brother might have a greater opportunity of coming to Australia than if he does not pay the $100. That is the picture overseas. I give credit, as the honourable member for Melbourne did, to the officers of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs both locally and overseas. The pressures on them have been intense. But I suggest that the Government itself is to blame for the situation that has developed. If we look at what happens after these migrants come to Australia in fairly large numbers, into my electorate and into the electorate of Grayndler, we see heavy demands on the school system. Young children who do not know a word of English have to go to school but not enough teachers of English as a second language are being provided. In one school in my electorate there are 34 nationalities- a large proportion of whom are Lebanese. In a school in the electorate of Evans there are about 43 nationalities and not sufficient teachers of English as a second language.

When these people come to Australia without a job and without English they go to the Commonwealth Employment Service but find that there are no interpreters. These people cannot fill out the application forms. The employer perhaps does not want them. This illustrates the imcompetence of government policy in relation to the Lebanese situation. This is what the Opposition complains about: the fact that these people are in difficulties. We are bringing them out to Austrlaia as quickly as we can but we should bear in mind the demands that are on us all. Relatives are impatient to have them here and that impatience will be curbed only if the maximum efficiency both overseas and here in Australia is applied to the situation.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lucock)Order!The honourable member's time has expired.

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