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Kerala Floods and children on Nauru - Adjournment Speech

Tuesday 18 September


I rise tonight to speak on the devastating floods that took place last month in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Throughout August, the Malayan people of Kerala were affected by the region's worst flooding in nearly a century. Over 1,000 millimetres of rain fell across 10 days, affecting nearly 70 per cent of the state. Rivers overflowed and neighbourhoods were swamped by landslides. Floodwaters up to three metres high filled homes and covered streets, leaving vehicles completely submerged.


To put this in context, in May this year my home city of Hobart experienced a terrible flood. We had nearly 100 millimetres of rain in just one night. While we are still in the process of repairing the damage from that single night, Kerala has experienced 10 times that amount of rain. More than 500 people have tragically lost their lives as a result of the flooding, and at the height of the crisis nearly 1½ million people suffered displacement, many living in relief camps with just the clothes on their backs.


Oxfam India said that the magnitude of devastation is immeasurable, with initial assessments estimating the cost of rebuilding at close to $4 billion. But the relief efforts have been incredible. Dump trucks, once viewed as dangerous hazards on Kerala's roads, have become vital to the rescue operations, being used to ferry survivors out and volunteers in. Schools have begun to reopen and a veritable army of volunteers, consisting of anyone from snake catchers to ministers, electricians and bureaucrats, has descended on Kerala to clean homes and clear roads. I think this speaks volumes of the determination of the people of Kerala: a resilient and community-minded people. Of course, there is still a long path to recovery ahead of them. As the clean-up continues, animal- and water-borne diseases, including malaria, pose a serious risk. So Kerala needs all the help it can get and can be given.


In my home city of Hobart, we are home to some 250 Malayali people who have been working tirelessly to do what they can to provide help and support to many affected by the floods in Kerala. The Hobart Malayali Association for some time has shared the rich culture of Kerala with Tasmanians and fostered a multicultural environment. But in light of this crisis, their efforts of course have shifted to focus on fundraising across Tasmania in support of the relief operations. They met with me in my office at the end of August. At that point in time they had already raised $16,000 ahead of their target of $20,000. At last week's federal Labor caucus meeting here in Parliament House, I'm proud to report that my Labor colleagues raised nearly $300 for the Kerala Chief Minister's Distress Relief Fund at a fundraising morning tea organised by myself and the shadow minister, Michelle Rowland. This flood is a major humanitarian crisis and something that Labor wanted to play our part in. I urge all Australians to join with us to do what we can to show our support to the people of Kerala in India.


I now wish to raise another humanitarian disaster on the other side of the Indo-Pacific. The refugee children who are detained on Nauru are in desperate need of medical attention. At the same time as Minister Marise Payne was visiting Nauru for the Pacific Islands Forum earlier this month, 109 children remained in critical condition in offshore detention by this government that she was representing. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has reported:


Around 30 children have shown from Traumatic Withdrawal Syndrome, a strong sense of resignation, brought about by the traumatic environment they are confined to and the non-treatment of prolonged mental illness. They have lost the ability to walk, talk, eat, self-toilet, drink or socialise. They are dehydrated and malnourished.


…   …   …


They can't get better on Nauru because being trapped there is the cause of their trauma.


A 12-year-old girl on Nauru told a psychiatrist last month that she believes suicide was 'the only way to get out of here. Is better being dead than here.'


These children all have no hope that Australia will look after them, but one country wants to. At that very forum that Senator Marise Payne attended—the forum the new Prime Minister was too uncomfortable to attend—there was an opportunity for Australia to discuss the settlement of those children in New Zealand. But the Morrison government cares very little, it seems, for humanity. It refused to take up that opportunity. New Zealand once again confirmed their generous offer to resettle refugees on Nauru. That offer remained opened. In fact, New Zealand went further. To make its offer a reality, it was willing to negotiate conditions to negate any concerns Peter Dutton and the Liberals had about that resettlement. As New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters, said on 4 September:


If that was their concern, that by letting them come to New Zealand they can gain rights to come to Australia, we can fix that up, so that's not really a concern in my view.


The Prime Minister, Minister Dutton and Minister Payne had no excuses on Nauru for refusing New Zealand's generous offer to resettle refugee children and their families, but refuse the offer they did.


I have written to Minister Dutton. Labor's shadow minister for immigration, Shayne Neumann, has written to Minister Dutton and to the Prime Minister, as I'm sure many of my other Labor caucus colleagues have. We have urged them to accept New Zealand's offer so that eligible refugees, including children from Manus and Nauru, can be resettled as quickly as possible. Because this is about humanity, our sense of humanity and to do what is right. Because this is about people, innocent people, who are losing the will to live, children who are losing the will to live. Australia should and must do something to help them—we owe it to them.


We know that New Zealand's offer was first negotiated, in 2013, between former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and former New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, before being binned by Tony Abbott, who said it would only be called upon if and when it became necessary. Well, it has been necessary for years. Nauru and Manus Island were set up as temporary regional processing centres that have become places of indefinite detention, places of no hope and overwhelming despair. 'In my nightmares, darkness surrounds me.' Those are the words of a seven-year-old boy called Ahoora, who arrived on Nauru as a three-year-old. Ahoora has seen his mother make numerous suicide attempts and write letters daubed with her own blood to Australian Border Force, begging for help. He has watched his older brother sew his lips together in protest.


The Turnbull government had the nous to negotiate appropriate conditions for the US refugee resettlement arrangement, but when it comes to the New Zealand settlement arrangement, why does the Morrison government simply walk away? Again, I call on this Prime Minister to fix the hell that he has created and take action to end the indefinite detention of refugees.