World Refugee Day

I spoke in parliament yesterday about the contribution that refugees have made to Australia.
World Refugee Day
20 June 2011

What do all these great Australians—researcher Gustav Nossal, entrepreneur Frank Lowy, scientist Karl Kruszelnicki, academic Eva Cox, commentator Les Murray, comedian Ahn Do; sportsman Majak Daw, television presenter Yalda Hakim, the late businessman Richard Pratt and Justice James Spiegelman—have in common? They were all refugees. World Refugee Day is a day to reflect on the generosity of Australia. We are a big country with a big heart This is something we should be proud of. Since 1945, over three-quarters of a million people have resettled in Australia. Those who have sought refuge in our country have made significant social, economic and cultural contributions to the nation we are today and to the nation we will be tomorrow.

Today, along with the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, I attended the Canberra Refugee Support scholarship ceremony. For the past six years the Canberra Refugee Support scholarship program has brought together the ACT government, local businesses, community organisations and individual citizens in helping refugees overcome hardship and persecution through the benefits of education and vocational opportunities. Today 22 refugees from Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran and Ethiopia were awarded scholarships to assist and acknowledge their determination and resilience in achieving their dreams.

One such recipient was See Mu Paw. See Mu is 18 years old and currently in her final year at Dickson College where she is studying to attain the ACT Year 12 Certificate. Gentle and caring, she is an active member of the Refugee Bridging Program. Before moving to a refugee camp in Thailand, See Mu had spent her young life in a small village in Burma. From the camp in Thailand, See Mu and her family settled in Australia in 2009. Se Mu's teachers comment on her kindness and her willingness to support others in need. She is planning to study childcare at the Canberra Institute of Technology next year. See Mu's scholarship was sponsored by Athol Morris in memory of his mother, Helen Morris. A refugee herself, Helen came to Australia before World War II, escaping the Nazi regime in 1936. The letter she wrote to Prime Minister Joseph Lyons made its way to his office via, of all places, the CSIRO. Wanting to help people in her situation, Prime Minister Lyons granted her an entry permit.

Helen's story highlights that Australia's generosity and understanding predates our commitment to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and the formation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Australia was a founding member of the 1958 UNHCR executive committee and, before that, the 1951 advisory committee. This government is committed to Australia taking more refugees and has expanded the humanitarian program to 14,750 places per year. Last year we provided $50 million in funding to the UNHCR.

In my electorate of Fraser, I am proud to work with and support the work of Canberra Refugee Support and its president, Geoff McPherson, vice president, David Cran and secretary Ben Pynt; the Canberra Multicultural Community Forum; the Dickson College Refugee Bridging Program; the senior multicultural information and learning exchange; and the Refugee Resettlement Committee with president Gabriel Blair, vice president Peter Peterson and community liaison officer Bev Purnell.

World Refugee Day celebrates the contribution of refugees to Australia and other nations. This year is the 60th anniversary of the United Nations refugee convention. Today we celebrate the diversity and richness refugees have brought to our country. But today is also a sobering day because, as far as we have come and as generous as we have been, we face the new challenges of working with our regional neighbours and the UNHCR to provide humane and respectful resettlement services while ending people smuggling.

Through the contribution of those who have chosen to call Australia home, refugees to Australia have brought employment and job opportunities to thousands. Brought an awareness of civic engagement and the importance of equality. Brought a curiosity and passion for the sciences. Brought a sense of fairness and justice. Brought laughter into our busy lives. The possibilities are limitless for what a new generation of refugees will bring to Australia.

(I hit my time limit in the chamber half way through the last paragraph.)

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.