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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 982

Ms VAMVAKINOU (Calwell) (11:50): Since the first Gulf War some 20 years ago and then the second Gulf War a decade ago, a great number of refugees from Iraq—predominantly Christian and predominantly from the Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac communities, but also Mandaeans—have come to Australia as refugees and asylum seekers, fleeing the ravages of war and instability and settling across Australia. Many have settled in my electorate of Calwell. In fact, the Chaldeans are our largest emerging community.

In the time I have been the member for Calwell I have had the opportunity to get to know the Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac communities well. In the relatively short period of their settlement here in Australia they have settled well. They have built homes, they are educating their children, they are developing businesses and they are making a good contribution overall to our community. They always tell me that the thing they value most about living in Australia is the freedoms of our democracy, which allows them to celebrate their culture and language and also practice their faith without fear. They value the stability of our democracy and appreciate the opportunity to live in our multicultural society, and they embrace Australian citizenship in great numbers—adding to our diverse cultural expression.

However, the same cannot be said about the families, the people and the country they have left behind. Thousands of Iraqis, predominantly Christian minorities, and Sabian Mandaeans were forced to flee from the brutalities of war and persecution in Iraq. Although thousands now call Australia home, they remain concerned about the ongoing violent persecution of minorities in Iraq. Although nominally it is said that the war in Iraq is over and that the mission has been accomplished, the situation in Iraq remains precarious to say the very least. The political stability required to underpin the development of democratic institutions is not there, and many people belonging to the various minorities in Iraq continue to leave the country and look for asylum, especially here in Australia.

The anxiety my constituents from Iraq feel is still intense and very real, especially because they have family who are either still in Iraq or have fled to refugee camps in neighbouring countries—families they eagerly await reunification with and whose welfare they are very much concerned about. In my ongoing and frequent meetings with them they consistently request that the Australian government assist in pressuring the Iraqi government to secure the freedom and rights of minority peoples who have centuries-old associations and identification with Iraq and its indigenous peoples.

While we may have removed our troops from Iraq, we were very much a part of the execution of the war there, and our responsibility towards Iraq and its future is far from over. Iraq remains a politically volatile place. Constant bombings see no end to the killing of innocent civilians, and many people who are still left behind increasingly feel more insecure and afraid. Our responsibility is to ensure that Australia remains actively engaged in the future prosperity of Iraq.

I recently received in my office Mr. Amir Goga, who is a member of the parliament of the Kurdistan region for the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council list. He impressed upon me in no uncertain terms that the situation of minorities in Iraq remains perilous. He spoke of the many cantons of security pockets that are being created, each with their own competing militias continuing to threaten the stability and security of the minority Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syriacs and Mandaeans.

This parliament rightly condemns persecution and violence against minorities, especially on the basis of their faith. I want to congratulate the member for Fowler for bringing this private member's motion to the House today. The history of Christians in the Middle East goes back centuries. The war in Iraq was initially justified on the basis that we had to rid the world of the threat embodied in the person of Saddam Hussein and the so-called weapons of mass destruction. We got rid of Saddam Hussein and we proclaimed an end to the war in Iraq. However, Iraq now lies in political and social ruin. Nobody you talk to from Iraq—and I talk to many people—will tell you that things have improved. All evidence points to continuing violence towards civilians generally and minorities in particular. Not only should we condemn these attacks but we have a moral responsibility to make every effort possible to help the people of Iraq create the peace and security they were promised and for which they paid and continue to pay very dearly. It was the Howard government that committed Australia to the coalition of the willing, so I am very disappointed that no member of the opposition has stood up in this very important motion to speak in defence of the minorities, especially Christians, in Iraq who are constantly being persecuted and have had lots of violence perpetrated against them. It is very disappointing.

Democratic stability in Iraq was supposed to give people freedoms to secure the human rights and political expressions of the Iraqi people. It has not done that. On the contrary, the violence against Sabian Mandaeans and other minority groups in Iraq is a testament to this. My colleagues have spoken about the historical connections of the Mandaean people to the region known as Iraq today. The ancient faiths and cultures of the region are embodied in the Mandaean culture. There is a remaining community of only 5,000 Sabians in Iraq. Ironically, there are some 5,000 living in Australia, and countless thousands of others have been forced to flee their native homelands. As my colleague noted, most of the Mandaean community has settled in Western Sydney and, like other Iraqi refugees, are very grateful to be living in Australia.

This parliament has a moral obligation to do whatever it can to assist the minorities that are trying to make a living and establish a life. A lot of Iraqis do not want to leave Iraq; they are forced to leave. Many of them would like to see genuine stability come to Iraq so they can actually get on with their lives. They were promised this when we went to war some 10 years ago but it has not been delivered yet. This parliament should do whatever it can to ensure that Australia remains actively engaged in the future stability and prosperity of Iraq.

Debate adjourned.