House debates

Tuesday, 12 February 2019


al-Araibi, Mr Hakeem, Asylum Seekers

7:50 pm

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Last night we heard the fantastic news that the Bahrain government's extradition proceedings against footballer Hakeem al-Araibi, a refugee and resident of Australia who has spent the last two months in a Thai jail under threat of refoulement, were being dropped. Hakeem returned to a hero's welcome at Melbourne Airport today, and he was reunited with his wife this afternoon. The public campaign to bring Hakeem home brought out the best in our community. It united people from all walks of life under the 'save Hakeem' slogan. Football clubs, trade unions, human rights NGOs, communities of faith and figures on all sides of politics united to save this young man's life. In Footscray, I had the privilege of being the first person to sign Jim Lawrence's enormous #SaveHakeem banner. Wider than my office building and taller than the awning, it took eight members of my staff and volunteers to hold the banner aloft in front of my office. Jim normally makes banners to support the Socceroos and wanted to use his unique skill set to rally community support for Hakeem. Outside the rancorous partisan debate of this building, in the Australian community this is the way that Australians respond when confronted with people in need: they want to do their bit to help. Those of us in this building need to take the lead of everyday Australians shown in the Hakeem campaign in the way that we deal with these issues: less posturing and politics and more practical assistance.

That's why I've been campaigning for the past two years for Australia to adopt an expanded and improved community refugee sponsorship scheme. According to the UNHCR, there are currently 65 million displaced people around the world fleeing war, conflict and persecution, the most since the Second World War. In our region alone, there are more than a million refugees and many more displaced people. Community sponsorship allows non-government actors—businesses, religious organisations, community groups and individuals—to directly meet the costs of resettling refugees either via direct financial contributions or through the provision of in-kind goods and services. Canada has used this community-driven model to resettle more than 300,000 refugees since the 1970s.

Almost two years ago, I introduced a motion in this chamber calling on the Australian government, business and community organisations to explore ways to use community sponsorship to expand the resettlement of refugees in Australia. The motion was supported not only by my Labor colleagues but also by colleagues in this chamber from the National and Liberal parties. The member for Mallee spoke passionately about seeing firsthand how a refugee community from Myanmar, in Nhill in his electorate, had been embraced by the local community and had rejuvenated the social and economic life of the town. The member for McMillan supported the motion and described the campaign for community sponsorship as 'a clarion call for compassion, conscience and common sense'.

After this motion was debated, civil society picked up the baton and began a nationwide campaign to build support for community sponsorship in Australia. A coalition of NGOs including the Refugee Council of Australia, Amnesty International, Save the Children, Welcome to Australia, Rural Australians for Refugees and the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce joined forces to form the Community Refugee Sponsorship Initiative. These NGOs gathered tens of thousands of signatures from supporters and developed a sponsorship model based on international best practice. I was pleased to host one of this group's community meetings recently at the home of the Western Bulldogs, the Whitten Oval in my electorate, and I'm proud of the support that the Western Bulldogs Community Foundation has offered for the campaign.

Last year at the Labor national conference, we announced that a Shorten Labor government would resettle an extra 5,000 refugees a year via community sponsorship on top of our existing commitment, to increase our humanitarian resettlement intake to 27,000 a year. Politics is pretty hard work a lot of the time, but the day that announcement was made was one of the good days. Just think of the potential of this announcement. Think about how good everyone who was involved in the Save Hakeem campaign felt today when they heard the good news that a man's life had been saved through their joint efforts and that he could come and build a future with his family, with his footy club and with the Australian community—with us. Then think about the potential of 5,000 Save Hakeems a year. Imagine the effect on people in communities across Australia coming together to transform the lives of 5,000 people a year by giving them a future in Australia. That's a vision that I can believe in.