Jon Stanhope, when Chief Minister of the ACT, declared Canberra a welcome city for refugees. He did this because he could read the compassion of our people and knew that we had many refugees successfully settled here.
I was Minister for Housing and also Minister for Multicultural Affairs at the time. I remember introducing a temporary housing solution to the incoming refugees from North Africa, using stock destined to be pulled down but still in reasonable condition.
It is against this background that I was encouraged to hear the passage of the “Medevac” Bill allowing sick refugees on Manus and Nauru to come to Australia for medical treatment.
A couple of comments are warranted.
There are only about 300 of the 1000 people on those islands who would qualify. They have already been processed from the status of asylum seekers to refugees, and really are entitled under international convention to be patriated to Australia. I would love to see them come here.
The policy of the Australian government has caused the illness of these people and you would think that we have an obligation to address that. A compensation case in an international court is not a ridiculous idea.
But in cogitating the bill and its success I was struck by an inconsistency. I speak of the case of Hakeem al-Araibi and its resolution compared with the nameless, internationally unknown inmates in those camps.
Hakeem fled Bahrain, a middle eastern emirate, travelled through two countries, Iran and Malaysia and came to Australia in 2014, seeking refugee status as an asylum seeker. He was granted refugee status in 2017. Note that he was on Australian soil when he sought refugee status and no-one kicked up a fuss.
The people on Manus and Nauru came from middle eastern countries, through a couple of other countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, as asylum seekers and sought refugee status. They were sent to detention camps on Manus Island, Nauru and Christmas Island. During the past 5 years, they have been processed as genuine refugees and not opportunistic terrorists. Yet they are still prevented from coming here.
The Australian Government appealed to the Thai government to release Hakeem even though he is not an Australian citizen yet (hopefully this will be achieved soon) and yet they deny the detention camp internees the same right. Even going to the length of denying them the opportunity of going to NZ.
Back to Canberra.
We could accommodate these 300 medical evacuees easily. The issues are of housing and medical treatments.
We may not have the medical expertise in the numbers needed. But the same must surely be said of Christmas Island, which is a disgusting option designed by this federal Government as an option abhorrent to the Australian public which may say we should not proceed. I don’t think so. It is still appalling.
But, medical services can be contracted out and paid for by the federal government. Indeed, if the 300 were given recognised refugee status and assimilated into the Canberra community, there would be no cost to the federal government.
We have housing stock which is destined for demolition in the suburbs. I talk not of multi-storied apartments but free standing houses. The demolition takes months to happen, needing planning approval, demolition approval and contract determination. It doesn’t happen under six months.
These houses can be, and used to be, given to those refugees coming here and getting on their feet. They don’t jump the public housing queue but are given a temporary leg up.
Now is the time to call for the refugees on Manus and Nauru to come here, to our welcoming city and welcoming community.