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Wednesday, 19 September 2001
Page: 30986

Mr SCHULTZ (2:07 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Would the minister provide advice to Australians planning to travel to the Middle East and to South-West Asia? What action is the Australian government taking to protect the welfare of Australians who are in that part of the world, particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Mr DOWNER (Minister for Foreign Affairs) —I thank the honourable member for Hume for his question and for the concern he shows for the welfare of Australians who might be travelling, or who are intending to travel. Clearly, at this extraordinarily difficult time in the international community, it is especially important that my department and I inform Australian travellers of the potential risks to them wherever they may be thinking of going or wherever they are. In order to make sure that we have the best available information, not only are we drawing on the resources of our own embassies, high commissions and consulates around the world, we are also working very closely with our traditional consular partner countries, the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

In the light of the events in the United States on 11 September, the government urges all Australians contemplating travel to the Middle East or to South-West and Central Asia to review their travel plans. If they do decide to proceed with travel, they should be extremely careful in doing so. Travellers should avoid any large public gatherings or demonstrations and keep themselves well informed of developments that might in one way or another affect their safety.

Anybody who is thinking of travelling to Afghanistan or Pakistan at this time should immediately postpone their travel. Moreover, notwithstanding encouraging developments between Israel and the Palestinians in recent days, people travelling more broadly in the Middle East should be aware that tensions in that region remain very high following the attacks on the United States.

Last week we advised all Australians in Afghanistan to depart the country, and I am pleased to report that all those known to us were able to do so as part of a United Nations evacuation operation. However, I remind the House that we have two Australians, Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas, who remain in prison in Afghanistan along with colleagues from the United States and Germany. We remain very concerned about their welfare. They are subject to a trial in the Taliban supreme court. As I understand it, that trial is not complete. We are doing everything we can to keep in touch with them through a locally engaged consular agent employed in Kabul by the American, German and Australian governments. Obviously, in our case, we are focusing very much on the welfare of those two Australians. We have received assurance that both those Australians continue to be treated well.

In answer to the honourable member's question, let me say that yesterday I instructed my department to urge all Australians in Pakistan to consider leaving the country. The high commission in Pakistan is circulating this advice to the Australian community through its system of consular wardens.

In conclusion, I thank the honourable member for his question and I remind all Australians that this is a very tense and very difficult time internationally, and to be especially careful if they are in, or considering visiting, anywhere in South-West Asia or in the Middle East.