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Monday, 3 June 2013
Page: 4883

Mr MITCHELL (McEwenGovernment Whip) (21:21): I rise to support this motion brought forward by the member for McMahon, because it is a very important motion. I would like to draw attention to the plight of the Assyrian people in Syria who have been caught up in the civil war. Syrian Assyrians are very aware of the persecution of Christians in Iraq following the removal of Saddam over the past 10 years. Many of the Assyrians in Syria actually fled Iraq over the last 10 years and sought haven in Syria and are now being forced to flee Syria as well.

The Assyrian communities in Syria have had a complex relationship with the Assad regime, as was the case with the Assyrians in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Violence against Assyrians is escalating in north-eastern Syria, which is home to tens of thousands of Christians, many from my community. With government forces, Arab rebels of the Free Syrian Army and Kurdish fighters locked in a three-way struggle for control, the area's Christian population has found itself caught in the middle. The Assyrians have become a target for criminals and terrorists. They are fleeing en masse. About half a million Assyrians have already escaped Syria. As well, the region has succumbed to lawlessness. Christians have become the target of armed rebel gangs which are kidnapping people and holding them to ransom. All sides are perpetrating terrible injustices on the local population, and this is adding to the mass exodus.

The Assyrian community of my electorate desperately want to help their relatives in Syria, but they feel helpless. They have been trying their best to support their families in Syria by collecting money every month to send to help provide food, shelter and support. But this has now become impossible due to Western Union closing its branches, leaving many of my constituents with no way to transfer funds to support their families. The community still collects money and banks it here in the hope they will soon find another way to transfer this much-needed support.

In recent months the priest from Tal Hamas—a town many of my constituents come from—was shot dead in front of the community. The rebels went on to occupy the town, taking over the school, council buildings and many other amenities, which they are still occupying today. This has led to more than 300 families fleeing to parts of Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. Another village near Hasakah was recently bombed by regime forces on the grounds that rebels were believed to be hiding there. The local church and several homes were destroyed and one student was killed.

Trying to reach a refugee camp over the border gives no guarantee of safety, and many Assyrians are now bypassing refugee camps on the border and heading to monasteries and towns further inland. They are too afraid to stay in the refugee camps. The situation in Syria has gone from bad to worse and it seems it will only get worse before it gets any better. It has been two years already and more than 70,000 people have lost their lives. We all hope the Syrian crisis will be resolved very soon and peacefully.

I would like to thank the member for McMahon for his work and compassion. As immigration minister and as member for McMahon, he has developed responses and allocated an extra 1,000 places in the refugee program to people affected by the Syrian crisis to be resettled in Australia. This included Syrian nationals and members of the Iraqi community, many of whom had family links to Australia. When I sit in the lounge rooms of local Assyrians in my community and hear their stories, it is a plight that, as humans, we have to take very seriously. We have to see what is going on and understand the issues that they face locally. Anyone with a family would know that you always worry about your relatives when they are in harm's way, and many Assyrians are not having the opportunity to talk to their families and their loved ones overseas because of the issues of getting through. I think the member for McMahon should be congratulated for bringing this motion to the House. It is an important one. We hope that Assyrians are able to have a better life that is free from persecution and gives them the opportunities that they so deserve.