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Monday, 3 June 2013
Page: 4881

Mr HAYES (FowlerChief Government Whip) (21:11): I would like to thank the member for McMahon for bringing this important motion to the House tonight. Could I also acknowledge his great contribution in his ministerial portfolio in increasing Australia's refugee intake to 20,000 and, specifically in identifying an additional thousand positions to be focused on refugees from the Middle East, with this particular situation in mind. So, Chris, thank you for what you have done and what you have done for the community.

His electorate in McMahon, like my electorate of Fowler, has a high proportion of refugees from the Middle East, and particularly from Iraq. These refugees represent a small proportion, however, of the million Christians who have fled Iraq since the invasion of 2003. A much larger proportion of individuals who were lucky enough to escape death now find themselves in refugee camps in Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon, and they certainly lack basic human rights and living conditions. Many others escaped to other regions of northern Iraq, where their futures are still uncertain but they are somewhat safer from harassment and persecution.

I join the member for McMahon in calling for the government of Iraq to establish an autonomous province in the Nineveh plains of northern Iraq, where Assyrian and other Christian minorities can live in peace and free of threat to their lives, their livelihoods, their cultural traditions and, most importantly, their religion.

The Nineveh plains hold a high level of importance for the Assyrian people, and certainly for those of the Assyrian Church of the East—the Syriacs and Chaldeans. It is a location which is very much at the heartland of Assyrian ancestry, and you will find many of the Assyrian ruins in that vicinity. It is also a province where the majority of the population is drawn from a group of minorities, around half of them being Assyrians.

Unfortunately, life is difficult for the citizens in that region particularly given the lack of infrastructure to aid the displaced population. There is certainly a grave lack of funding going into health, education, roads and other things that make this a viable region, ensuring the survival and prosperity of the population there. There is also growing struggle for political influence in the area between the various Assyrian entities, including the Assyrian Democratic Movement and sections of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The situation that Christians face in Iraq, including northern Iraq, and in the various refugee camps in neighbouring countries, is very alarming to all responsible members of the international community. The internally displaced people and refugees nevertheless are fortunate to at least have a dedicated group of representatives around the world who are advocating on their behalf and making sure that the global community is well aware of their struggle. We have with us tonight representatives from the Assyrian Universal Alliance, an organisation which has a very strong presence in my local community and across Australia and New Zealand. I have met a number of times with their representatives Hermiz Shahen, the organisation's regional secretary, and David David, as well as with other representatives of the community, including Ninos Aaron, James Jacob, Joseph Joseph, Redmon Zomaya and Sankhairo Zomaya. I would very much like to thank the Assyrian Universal Alliance for the work that they do. Only recently, I had the opportunity to present them with a community service award for the work that they do looking after the wellbeing and settlement needs of the local Assyrian community.

An individual who has provided me with significant insight into the issues facing the Assyrian population in Iraq is His Beatitude Mar Meelis Zaia, the Metropolitan of the Archdiocese of Australia, New Zealand and Lebanon. He has been the leader of the Assyrian Church of the East in the Oceania region for the last 25 years. During our discussions, we shared common views on the importance of education among displaced people, particularly those in northern Iraq and particularly the younger generations.