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Thursday, 26 November 2015
Page: 9170


Senator GALLACHER (South Australia) (17:36): This debate on Senator Siewert's motion about the conflict in the Middle East is a very important one. Very clearly, there is a divergence of views—and that is probably quite appropriate in the vibrant democracy that we enjoy here in Australia. It is a bit of an irony that it is probably not available to those people in conflicted areas.

I just want to go to Senator Siewert's motion, and, in particular, two points. The first is (a)(i):

… the ongoing conflict in Syria, which has led to over 250 000 deaths, and the fleeing of 4 million refugees, over half of whom are children …

The second is (a)(ii):

… Australia's ongoing military involvement in Syria and Iraq, the scale of which is second only to the United States of America …

I want to put on the public record a more complete picture than those two fairly succinct points.

By the by, I must admit that I did not know the population of Syria, and I am often asking the library for information like this, but it is about 21.9 million, estimated in 2013. That just puts into perspective the following report:

The Syria conflict is the biggest humanitarian, peace and security crisis facing the world today. Intensified fighting and a deteriorating humanitarian situation continue to cause massive people flows within Syria and into the region.

The UN estimates 12.2 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance while 4.1 million have fled to neighbouring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

I think that is really important, because if you just watch the media reports you get the idea that people are fleeing to Europe, or they are fleeing completely out of the area. There are 4.1 million in the neighbouring countries—Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. The report continues:

Australia has provided $190 million in humanitarian funding since the conflict began in 2011. This includes $83 million for assistance to people inside Syria and $107 million to help the refugees in the region and their host communities.

This funding has been delivered through United Nations agencies, international humanitarian organisations and Australian non-government organisations to reach people in need. By working with these partners, Australian funding has been able to provide shelter, protection, food, water and sanitation, education, health and medical services in response to the crisis.

The key statistics remain: 12.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance inside of Syria, 7.6 million internally displaced people inside Syria, 4.6 million living in hard-to-reach areas inside Syria, and 422,000 living in besieged areas. There are 4.1 million Syrian refugees in the region, 2.1 million of which are children. And 89 per cent of Syrian refugees are residing in host communities. Appallingly, 320,000 have been killed since the start of the conflict.

So, just to put a little bit more substance to the first point, it truly is a global humanitarian crisis that we are seeing in Syria. And if we look at Australia's ongoing military involvement we know from our own defence department's website that Operation OKRA is the Australian Defence Force's contribution to the international effort to combat Daesh, known as ISIL, the terrorist threat in Iraq and Syria. Australia's contribution has been closely coordinated with the Iraqi government, Gulf nations and a broad coalition of international partners. What this translates to is that about 780 ADF personnel have been deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation OKRA. These personnel make up the Air Task Group, or ATG; the Special Operations Task Group, or SOTG; and Task Group Taji, or TG Taji. Approximately 400 personnel have been assigned to ATG, 80 personnel are assigned to SOTG and about 300 personnel are assigned to TG Taji. Further information about the international effort to combat Daesh and the terrorist threat in Iraq can by found by simply examining either the US defence department's website or our own. The ATG consists of six Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18 Hornets, an E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft and a KC-30A multirole tanker transport. Clearly we are part of a coalition, if you like, and our contribution is significant. But I just want to highlight the point that Australia's ongoing military involvement in Syria and Iraq is of a scale that is second only to that of the United States of America. I just want to put that in absolute perspective: it is six aircraft, with an early warning and control aircraft and a Wedgetail.

But we do know that those people have been extremely busy. We know from the reports of Defence that they have flown a lot of hours and a lot of sorties, and we know also that the RAAF C-17A Globemaster has successfully delivered 40,000 pounds of crated weapons from Albania to Erbil in Iraq. On 24 September it carried 11½ tonnes of weapons. So, the C-17A has been involved in logistics, so to speak, in making sure that our people are well-resourced to do their job and ensure that their contribution is 100 per cent. We also know that the RAAF C-130J has delivered 15 bundles of Australian humanitarian supplies to isolated civilians at the Iraqi town of Amirli, and this effort has been continual and ongoing. Finally, with respect to the military contribution, we know that the Special Operations Task Group has been deployed to the Middle East region and is providing military advice and assistance to the counter-terrorism service of the Iraqi security forces. These forces are taking the fight to ISIL, or Daesh. The legal protections required for the deployment of the SOTG have been agreed with the Iraqi government, and the advise and assist mission is being conducted with direct support of Iraqi security forces.

That just puts a little bit of perspective into the military involvement in Syria and Iraq. We know that Task Group Taji is a combined Australia and New Zealand military training force located at the Taji military complex north-west of Baghdad. So, TG Taji has been deployed to Iraq to support an international effort to train and build the capacity of the regular Iraqi security forces. A common term for this international training mission is building partner capacity. So, that is just a little bit more detail on the scale of the conflict and the size of the Australian contribution.

To take a very broad view of the next point in the motion,—increase the intake of refugees from the Syrian crisis—if you were to walk up any street in Australia you would get five different views on this, and some of the views are probably not worth repeating. But the reality is that we cannot not fail to place on the record that Australia has a long history of accepting humanitarian refugees from all parts of the globe. Australia's postwar migration program has seen over 800,000 refugees and displaced persons settled in Australia. We do it better than anybody else, but we also have to be mindful and careful. We face new challenges and threats every day.

I accept the right of all people to come in here and put their particular viewpoints. I could probably have a debate with Senator Bernardi at times on a lot of issues but, as he eloquently put it, he may be the canary in the mine. There are plenty of people in the community who share his view. I personally do not have as many misgivings as Senator Bernardi but, then again, I am not in total support of where the Australian Greens want to go. I want to make sure that in this debate we do have firmly on the record that I do not think there is a nation in the world that has done better at helping with humanitarian issues and displaced people, particularly since World War II, than Australia. That has been a tremendously successful effort. It is something that the nation should be extremely proud of, and we are. Genuinely, over time, it has probably been a fairly bipartisan effort. In the last six to eight years we have fallen into vigorous debate and there has been criticism hurled across the chamber both ways about the outcomes that we have had. I think bipartisanship in this area is extremely important to Australia. After all, it is the government's prerogative under the Westminster system to commit troops and to deal with these sorts of things, so it is not a parliamentary decision, it is only a parliamentary debate. In my view we have reacted very strongly to the Syrian conflict.

There has been some debate about what part the regions are playing. I want to restate that 4.1 million people have fled the violence in Syria to neighbouring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. In Lebanon, refugees make up one-quarter of the population, which is the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world. About 90 per cent of the refugees in the region are residing in host communities, which is, quite obviously, placing a strain on their local infrastructure and services.

On 9 September 2015, the Australian government announced a further $44 million in humanitarian assistance in response to the Syrian-Iraq crisis. I know the party that I am a member of suggested that figure should be closer to $100 million. It welcomed the $44 million, but it said it would be better if the figure were increased to $100 million. We are not in government, so that is a decision of the government. The $44 million includes $20 million to UNHCR for countries neighbouring Syria, $9 million to WFP for Iraq and countries neighbouring Syria, $3 million to UNICEF for countries neighbouring Syria and $12 million to other international humanitarian partners operating inside Syria and Iraq. This brings, as I said, our humanitarian response in Syria to a total of $190 million since 2011. That is not an insignificant contribution.

We see the call for an increase in the intake of refugees from the Syrian crisis. Syria's population is 21.9 million. In 2010, it had a GDP of $60 billion. In 2011, it was $53.7 billion. In 2012, it was $41.5 billion. In 2013, it was $35.2 billion. They had inflation go from 4.4 per cent in 2010 to 4.8 per cent in 2011, to 37 per cent in 2012 and to 91 per cent in 2013. Clearly the economy and the place has completely collapsed. Apart from the obvious danger of being maimed, injured, killed, beheaded, or all of the other unmentionable things that happen in war, there is no opportunity for anyone to function in that economy. We know that the neighbouring countries have absorbed tremendous numbers of people. Were we to say that we would take 20,000 or 30,000 Syrian refugees, there would probably be people who, on top of the obvious reasons for wanting to come to Australia with its enormous economic pull factor, would do whatever it takes to get to the economic security of Australia.

In regard to what the government has done in relation to 12,000, let us evaluate that, let us carefully work through that and let us see how that is working. I note Senator Smith's contribution was that the first refugees would be warmly welcomed in Perth. I think we will warmly welcome all of those people who qualify and make the journey to Australia. I think they will reward the country with their undying loyalty and contribution to the economy, because we are doing an immensely powerful thing for them. To simply increase the numbers without the careful, prudent strategies in place to ensure Australia's safety, security and viability in these areas would be a little adventurous to say the least.

The simple facts are that 12,000 places will be given to people displaced in Syria and Iraq who are the most vulnerable, which are women, children and families with the least prospect of ever returning safely to their homes. They are located in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. People who fall into these categories will be both Syrians and Iraqis. While subject to review, it is anticipated that a significant number of places will be available for both Syrians and Iraqis, noting the widespread displacement of people from those countries.

Applications for resettlement will be required to meet all the criteria for a refugee and humanitarian visa, including health, character and, most importantly, security checks. These checks must be completed before people enter Australia. It is a very prudent and bipartisan strategy. Any Australian government takes our national security extremely seriously, and it has been made clear that, from the outset, security and character checks of the additional 12,000 humanitarian refugees will not be compromised. Rigorous security checks will be conducted prior to arrival in Australia at a key number of visa-processing points. This includes the collection and checking of biometric data such as facial images and fingerprints. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection works closely with the relevant Australian agencies and international partners in conducting these security checks, including the checking of biometric data.

We clearly have a situation of enormous gravity. We are clearly a nation that has always had a reputation for stepping up to the plate, contributing and assisting in these areas. We have a security force that is trained, capable and able to be deployed. It carries out its tasks with extreme professionalism and is second to none, in my view. Its contribution should always be recorded in this chamber. I want to spend a couple of minutes going to the issue of de-escalating Australia's military presence in Syria. It is not a terribly large-scale presence. It is a terribly professional and effective presence, and it is probably meeting the needs that it has been invited there to meet. Of course, it will always be evaluated, and our chiefs of defence—Air Force, Army and Navy—will always give us the best advice as to what that escalation or de-escalation should be, and I will probably leave that there.

Finally, no-one wants children in detention. Clearly that is the view of all the senators in this place. I do not think anybody has a view that children should be in detention. We have had the debate today about where we started and where we are today, with around 100 children in detention. Hopefully, through the involvement of a select committee in this place, we will be in a much better position with the 100 children that remain in detention. Hopefully they are getting treated in a manner that is consistent with Australia's normal way of dealing with children. I am hopeful that there will be more disclosure in respect of their treatment. Their education should have improved. Improvement in their ability to seek medical treatment and all of that, after the enormous debates we have had in this chamber, should be well underway. It will not sort out the fact that they are not in Australia, but they should at least be guaranteed Australian conditions wherever they are—Australian freedom, protection, education, access to proper health facilities, access to decent schooling, access to proper food, comfort and security and the ability to go to sleep every night in a safe place.