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Thursday, 10 March 1977
Page: 88

Mr MacKELLAR (Warringah) (Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs) - I am very pleased that the honourable member for Melbourne (Mr Innes), the spokesman for the Opposition on immigration and ethnic affairs, has once again brought the plight of Lebanese people to the attention of the House. Obviously, as he has said, it is a most important matter. He insists upon calling them refugees. In a very real sense they are, except, if one has to be precise, they do not come within the definition of refugees as accepted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I am quite prepared to discuss the matter in this light because, as I have said on numerous occasions and a great number of people have said on numerous occasions, these people have suffered a great deal in the country of their birth or home. For purposes of entry to Australia, Australia has treated people disadvantaged by the situation in the Lebanon as quasi-refugees. I mention this because we should look at this entire problem of refugees or quasi-refugees not in relation only to one point in the world but in relation to the entire refugee or quasi-refugee situation which exists. It is rather interesting that the Opposition has understandably placed great emphasis on the Lebanese situation- a situation which the Government has recognised consistently and has done something about- but not once has the spokesman for the Opposition mentioned the plight of Indo-Chinese refugees who, at this stage, are in parlous circumstances in refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia.

Mr Innes - At least I looked at those camps. You did not.

Mr MacKELLAR - I did. The selective approach to the problems of disadvantaged peoples overseas which the Opposition has exemplified so far is rather unusual. The spokesman for the Opposition has accused the Government of all sorts of dereliction of duty. I believe one should place on record what has occurred. Keep in mind that any immigration program, and particularly any program in relation to refugee or quasi-refugee resettlement, must take into account the full global situation. We have sought to do that As a result of the special measures taken to facilitate the reunion of Lebanese people with close relatives in Australia, prima facie acceptable nominations received prior to 31 December 1976 covered 31071 people- including 4000 community list nominees- of whom 18 149 lodged formal applications at our overseas posts during the period 1 July 1976 to 28 February 1977. The nominations accepted under the relaxed criteria lapsed if the nominees had not personally applied for migration at our overseas posts before 28 February 1977.

The Opposition has made great play of the suggestion that allegedly we have not responded to points put up to us by the Lebanese community. That is sheer nonsense. In fact I have just mentioned that the people had to lodge applications before 28 February. Originally the date was 31 January, but in response to representations by the Lebanese people this date was set forward to 28 February.

During the period 1 January 1976 to 25 February 1977 overseas posts issued visas covering 9789 Lebanese people of whom 5865 had arrived in Australia by 31 January 1977. It is possible that the number of arrivals is higher than that because we judge the arrivals by what people write on their arrival card as their last place of residence. Many Lebanese people may have written Cyprus as the country of last residence because that is the country from which they came to Australia. Over 3000 have shown Cyprus as their last place of residence. This total is in addition to the 5300 people who in the last 7 months have given Lebanon as their last place of residence. The honourable member for Melbourne (Mr Innes) has castigated the Government for not doing as well as other nations in relation to acceptance of the Lebanese. In the past he has mentioned particularly Canada. During the whole of 1976, 7161 Lebanese arrived in Canada. The numbers have now dropped off, but I believe this is to be welcomed simply because it reflects a settling of the situation in the Lebanon.

If one looks at the volume of applications and nominations one can see that it was inevitable that some delays would have occurred in respect of the processing of applications and the interviewing of people who wished to come to Australia. It is a fact that the date for the consideration of applications was stretched further ahead because of the limitations of available staff. In the first instance the large volume of nominations lodged by relatives in Australia had to be checked in respect of things such as the availability of accommodation before they were forwarded to Nicosia. At the same time the rush of nominations in Nicosia rose to 1000 people a day. Obviously this would have caused delay in the treatment of applications.

The number of applications built up quite dramatically during the time that the task force was accepting nominations in Nicosia. So too did the number of applications processed and the numbers of people arriving in Australia. There were some delays. These delays quite legitimately resulted from medical queries. Often there were difficulties in contacting applicants, many of whom returned to the Lebanon to await the issue of visas. There were a great number of problems in respect of the identification of applicants. I am very glad that the Opposition spokesman has paid a tribute to the work done by the officers of my Department. I also have visited the posts overseas, particularly the post in Nicosia, and I have seen at first hand just how hard these people work, the long hours that they work and the extreme dedication that they show. I am very pleased that the honourable member for Melbourne at least has paid a tribute to those officers.

We must understand the situation of the sponsors of Lebanese migrants and the sponsored when they arrive in Australia. Before nominations were accepted from people in Australia, the Lebanese community, as a result of discussions I had with them, accepted responsibility for the post arrival resettlement of their relatives. This responsibility applied particularly in respect of employment placement, accommodation and initial financial support. Throughout the whole of this exercise the efforts of some people- I emphasise the words 'some people'- within the Lebanese community made things a bit more difficult than otherwise they would have been. There were numerous instances of deception relating to identity, substitution and the withholding of documents. Also, false statements were made in an endeavour to mislead officials. I guess that this action is understandable in a case where people are seeking to bring relatives to Australia and see this as a method of achieving their aim. But it did make the process of identification and medical and character checking that much more difficult. It led to some delay. I am hopeful that the Opposition will not say that we should relax the medical and character checks which, after all, are instituted to protect the Australian community as well as the individual.

Unfortunately Mr Abdulla, an accredited courier for the South Lebanese Association in Sydney, was not only found to have urged nominees to mislay documents to confuse identity but also he deliberately deceived our officials both in Sydney and Nicosia in respect of his own sister and her family. Here is a man who was sent by an association to assist people to come to Australia, yet we found that he was undertaking these activities. I mention this fact to show the difficulties under which our officers overseas were working. These officers had to deal with people who were coming forward to apply for entry to Australia at the rate of up to 1000 a day.

The honourable member for Melbourne said that he wrote to me in relation to suggestions put forward by the Lebanese community. He said he has not received a reply from me.

Mr Innes - Not even an acknowledgement.

Mr MacKELLAR - Not even an acknowledgement, he says. Unfortunately he probably does not open his mail. I have information which shows that I sent him an acknowledgement some time ago. I do not know whether he has received it. But if he checks back through his mail probably he will find it.

Mr Ruddock - He has been away.

Mr MacKELLAR - Of course he has been overseas on one of his trips, and that is fair enough. One of the suggestions of the Lebanese community put forward by the honourable member as a means of helping to alleviate the problems that remain is the reopening of our embassy in Beirut. At all times we have said that we would reopen the embassy in Beirut as soon as this step was feasible. I am glad to be able to tell the honourable member that we are looking at reopening the embassy in Beirut possibly in May of this year. The first people who will be going into that embassy will, of course, be the

Immigration officials as well as some of the Foreign Affairs personnel.

The honourable member has made mention of the refusal of applications on medical grounds. I can assure him and the Lebanese community as a whole that there is no truth in the statement that medical assessments have been altered in some way and that tougher criteria are being employed. There was an understanding and an undertaking when particular operations were commenced in September of last year whereby some people nominated by groups within the Lebanese community and were placed in category A could travel to Australia and would be assessed on medical grounds once they arrived here. But this arrangement was finalised at the end of September last year. Since that time there has been a requirement that all people who are nominated to come to Australia should be assessed in terms of health and character clearances before they leave to come to Australia. This was done because we found a great number of medical problems presenting themselves. The Opposition has very cleverly refrained at all times from saying how many people we should accept. Should we accept everyone who nominates? Should we have accepted the 3 1 000 people who made applications? Not once has the Opposition said how many we should have taken.

In this matter we have relaxed the normal entry criteria in relation to relationships, and a great number of people have come to Australia and are still coming to Australia as a result of the Government's initiatives. Obviously in any refugee situation or quasi-refugee situation one would like to do more, but it is simply not possible. The limits have to be drawn somewhere. The honourable member made great play about my not understanding the question of extended family as evidenced by the Lebanese. That is nonsense. I well understand the feeling of extended family as evidenced by the Lebanese and other groups of people. That is why the relationships were limited to the ones which have been promulgated. If we had extended those relationships the numbers eligible to come would have escalated markedly. We know that most of these people were coming to Sydney, where of course job opportunities at the moment are fairly limited and the position of these people would be extremely parlous.

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

Mr INNES(Melbourne)-Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish to make a personal explanation.

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