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Monday, 7 September 2015
Page: 6100

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (16:05): Isn't it ironic that some two years ago the Abbott government, when it was elected, reduced Australia's humanitarian intake of refugees by almost one-third. Our intake went down from 20,000 to 13,750, at a time when the UNHCR is reporting the highest figure on record of forcibly displaced people in the world—some 59.9 million. Over one-half of those are child refugees. With more than four million Syrians now having fled their country, the world is dealing with the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Of course it demands an urgent and compassionate response. Of course it demands that our country do its part over and above its annual humanitarian intake. Our intake, as I just highlighted, was already reduced by almost a third two years ago. We must play our part as a global citizen. Australia is a wealthy country, and we are better placed than many nations to make a strong and urgent contribution.

I note the contributions to this debate by those government senators who talk about saving lives at sea. It is a mantra we hear time and time again in this parliament. If the government is serious about saving lives at sea it must do more to resettle those in need, before they have no other choice than to make that perilous journey. That is the situation we are currently in. This is the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. We do not need an immigration minister to fly halfway around the world to have meetings in Geneva to work out what the Australian community already knows needs to happen.

Labor has made a call today for the government to implement an additional 10,000 humanitarian places for refugees displaced by the conflict in the Middle East, for those most in need, determined by the UNHCR, so that they can be settled here, brought to Australia—a safe haven. There have been similar calls from civil society. I noticed that Amnesty International has called for the resettlement of 20,000 Syrian refugees. Both the opposition and civil society are asking our government to do what any good global citizen would do, and that is to increase Australia's humanitarian intake, just like our European neighbours are doing, to help those most in need. It is vital for Australia to support as many Syrian refugees as we can, starting with the people considered most in need by the UNHCR, and on top of that to provide the UNHCR with the support it will need for its ongoing humanitarian relief efforts in response to the Syrian crisis. Labor has called on the government to immediately implement an extra $100 million in that vein.

Why do we do this? We do it because we have the capacity, because we have the ability and because our values tell us to do it. It is simply something we should be doing immediately. We do not need Minister Dutton to come back and tell us about something that we already know needs to happen. In fact, some state Liberal premiers even know that this needs to happen. I note that Will Hodgman, the premier of my home state, and the premier of New South Wales are trying to talk to their Liberal federal counterparts. Where is the government here? It sounds like it is completely alone in its position of not acting on this issue. It is deeply disappointing that Prime Minister Abbott would choose to merely reshuffle the refugee waiting list and displace other people who are in desperate need instead of showing genuine compassion and increasing our overall intake.

Our intake currently stands at 13,750. It is not enough in itself, let alone when you add the Syrian refugees who need settlement and need to come to our country. We have to increase our humanitarian intake, just like we did in 1999, when 4,000 Kosovars came to Australia in desperate need for a global citizen like Australia to act, and just like the 2,000 East Timorese did around the same time, when Australia then acted. That is what is needed again now. That is what Labor is calling for, just like Germany has done. In fact, Germany has been remarkable in its efforts, as have a number of other countries, such as the UK and, dare I say it, Lebanon, in the role it has played. Lebanon, a country one-ninth the size of Tasmania, with a population of some four million people, has taken in 1.2 million Syrian refugees—and here we are debating whether we should increase our humanitarian intake by 10,000 or maybe 20,000 or keep it as it is, at a mere 13,000. We can do way, way better than this.

Germany, another small country in terms of land and size compared with ours, is saying it will take up to 800,000 refugees. We are a rich, wealthy nation. I sincerely ask our Prime Minister to take the politics out of this. This is about head and heart, but both of those things mean that we should act bipartisanly, together, in ensuring that we bring these refugees from the Middle East, from Syria and Iraq, to our shores. I think that is what the Australian public wants, too. I think the Australian public would respect a compassionate government that is frank about its desire to support refugees, protect children from harm and abuse and stop people taking that perilous journey at sea. (Time expired)