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Wednesday, 30 May 2012
Page: 6435

Mr BOWEN (McMahonMinister for Immigration and Citizenship) (17:51): Again, I would acknowledge the honourable member's very firm advocacy for the Coptic community. I did visit his electorate and visited Saint Mina and St Marina Church with Bishop Suriel and the clergy and a large contingent of the parish. The honourable member has been a very strong advocate for the Coptic community, as has the member for Chifley and many other members. The member for Parramatta was talking to me about the issue just today and I recognise all members and members opposite who have also raised concerns for the Coptic community.

The Sunday before last, I visited Saint Mark's in Arncliffe, my second visit, and spent almost all of Sunday at Saint Mark's with the community, and I think that the honourable member for Cook might have been there as well. It is a wonderful experience—three separate churches in the one facility—and they certainly know how to make you feel welcome and they are certainly passionate about their community. I am a regular interlocutor with Bishop Suriel about the issues facing the community and with Father Agostino and other fathers in Sydney and Melbourne as well.

In relation to the honourable member's question, the situation facing Copts in Egypt continues to be serious and the government has made, in relation to the foreign affairs portfolio, representations. Of course we would like protections placed in law for churches and other places of worship and we would like antidiscrimination law brought into place in Egypt. But until the situation improves in Egypt, then immigration and refugee issues will be front of mind.

The honourable member asked about the number of grants in the last four years. This government has granted 120 offshore humanitarian visas to Coptic Christians from Egypt. This compares to one offshore grant in the last three program years before the election of this government. A further 100 Egyptian nationals have been granted protection onshore in the last program year after seeking protection in Australia, and for the year to date, I am advised that to 7 May the figure for Copts was 33.

I would also say that one of the reforms I introduced on becoming minister was every six months releasing ministerial intervention statistics—this is my personal power to grant visas—and there are many thousands considered each year. I wanted to introduce more transparency to that process and be clearer with the Australian community about who gets those ministerial grant visas, because they are appropriately issued in unique or exceptional circumstances. It is a very important safety valve. Those figures that I have released would show a particularly high success rate for ministerial intervention when it comes to applications from Copts. They are all considered individually and on their merits. Certainly, in using my own powers I do take into account very clearly the situation in Egypt and the issuing of those visas is something that I take very seriously, and hence the high approval rating that is reflected.

In addition, during the height of the unrest last year, I announced that my department would take circumstances in Egypt into account when dealing with requests for visa extensions, something we do from time to time in relation to circumstances in home countries whether it be natural disasters or humanitarian issues such as we have seen in Egypt. I know that this has helped ensure that individuals can remain in Australia. They may not wish to have permanent residence. They may not wish to seek protection, but they nevertheless do not want to return while the situation is so uncertain. My department takes as flexible an approach as possible in those circumstances.

Again, my office engages very regularly with the Coptic community about issues broad, specific and individual. That is appropriate for a community which is facing such uncertainty and such dangers. I join with the honourable member, as I have in this House before, in paying my respects and condolences for His Holiness Pope Shenouda III. I have indicated, perhaps without authority, to the Coptic community that we will welcome the new Pope in the new year for a visit to Australia. I am sure the entire government and the entire parliament would hope that he—whichever bishop emerges as the new Pope—will be able to make an early visit to Australia to visit the vibrant and very passionate Coptic Diaspora in Australia.