Repatriation of Australian women and children from Syrian camps

House of Representatives on 23/11/2022

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (15:51): We have a special responsibility in this place to act in the national interest. I think we all know that. I know the members on the other side and the crossbench do. Many people don’t see the cooperation that happens in the committees and the other important matters in this place, where members and senators from both sides work together in the national interest.

I’ve seen that spirit of bipartisanship, and, in that context, I find this MPI simply unbelievable. It’s actually galling. You would think the opposition would have learnt their lesson when it comes to our national security and foreign policy. You would think they’d resist the temptation to try and score domestic politic points, after the damage that was done to our international relationships by the former government. But they haven’t learnt. They are so desperate to cover up the truth and to write a revisionist history when it comes to their pathetic legacy in government, because, when it comes to this issue—like many other issues—they just want to kick it into the long grass and then politicise it. They refused to make the tough calls, the ones Australians expect their government to make.

This government has made this decision, based on the best advice of our national security agencies, based on four sound reasons: national security for Australians, to keep us safe; support for our partners who are fighting on the front line against Islamic State; and citizenship. What does it mean to be an Australian? What are our obligations to our Australian citizens, particularly children? And the fourth reason was our humanitarian obligations to those Australian citizens.

Firstly, on national security, I want to ask those opposite, given you decided not to repatriate these children, what was your plan? Was it to leave them there languishing, exposed to violent ideology, and to have them grow up alongside people who would seek to do us harm and have them become those people? Was it to have them become adults, Australian citizens, and have them return to Australia or elsewhere with that violent ideology after being radicalised? What was your plan?

For all of the criticism that you want to throw at this government, this government actually acted. We chose not to take the risk to national security in the longer term, knowing it would have increased down the line. Instead, we chose to let these children grow up in Australia, inculcated by Australian values, not radicalised in a squalid camp with a violent ideology. The UN counterterrorism chief said that inaction on repatriation threatened ‘to bring about those very outcomes we intend to prevent,’ including ‘the radicalisation and recruitment of a new generation of terrorists and a strengthening of terrorist groups in the region and around world’. He went on to brief the UN Security Council in August this year and said:

Those individuals, many of whom are children who did not choose to be there … are at very real risk of radicalisation and recruitment.

Secondly, we have made a decision to support partners on the frontline fight against Islamic State. Approximately 36 other countries have repatriated many of their citizens from those camps in north-east Syria. This is a decision made by this government in line with our allies and partners around the world. Thirdly, these children are Australian citizens. That means something. It should mean something to each and every one of us in this House. There is a value in it. Fourthly, we owe humanitarian obligations to our citizens, especially children. The repatriation of the women and children from the camps shows that this government cares for its children, for its citizens and for its responsibility to act in the best interests of those children.

The former government left Australian women and children to languish in these camps in conditions most of us could not imagine, horrible conditions, with children under constant risk of being injured, killed or trafficked. I would suggest those opposite, if they weren’t trying to score cheap, domestic political points, would actually support this decision, because guess what? The member for Cook when he was PM actually did so when the former government repatriated children in 2019. They received the same advice that the now opposition leader, when he was Minister for Home Affairs, got. He was briefed by the same national security agencies that supported this decision.

So if you don’t have a plan, leave it to those who will act in the national interest, who won’t kick the issues into the long grass. If you are interested in working in the national interest in a spirit of true bipartisanship, as I believe many are in this place, give up on the sham of trying to rewrite history. Accept your failings in government, but don’t criticise this one for taking action where you refused to.