‘Disgraceful’: Bitter debate erupts over Syria repatriations

The federal government has accused the opposition of “rank hypocrisy” for opposing the repatriation of Australian relatives of Islamic State fighters from refugee camps in Syria as debate over the issue grows increasingly personal and partisan.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton visited Fairfield, in western Sydney, on Thursday to meet with community leaders concerned about the repatriations and demand more details from the government about how the women and children would be integrated into society.

Sydney man Kamalle Dabboussy with his granddaughters and daughter Mariam, who were repatriated from a refugee camp in Syria last week. Credit:Courtesy of Kamalle Dabboussy

Many of the 43 women and children still in the Syrian camps are expected to settle in western Sydney, while a particularly challenging cohort will be resettled in Melbourne after this month’s Victorian state election.

In her strongest comments since four women and 13 children were brought to Australia from the al-Roj camp in northern Syria last week, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said: “I think the politicking that is going on from the opposition leader is disgraceful.”

O’Neil told the ABC: “It is rank hypocrisy because the Liberals did exactly the same thing in 2019 – repatriated a group of people from these camps.

“For some reason, they are now saying this is not appropriate to do. People are sick of this kind of politics.”

Education Minister Jason Clare, whose electorate of Blaxland is in western Sydney, told Channel Seven: “The Morrison government did exactly the same thing three years ago … For the Coalition to now say they’re against that makes them hypocrites.”

Dutton was home affairs minister at the time.

Deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley said the Morrison government’s repatriation mission was entirely different because it brought only children home.

During his visit to Fairfield, Dutton said: “I don’t think you can underestimate the level of anxiety and concern that communities have got.

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil has said little about the planned rescue mission.Credit:James Brickwood

“I think, frankly, communities are really keen to hear from the prime minister the logic, what security considerations have been taken into account and why it is that this doesn’t raise the security risk.”

Fairfield Mayor Frank Carbone said many people in his community – including Assyrian refugees who fled Islamic State brutality – were opposed to the repatriations.

“The government has not shown any respect to our community in western Sydney,” he said. “They have not alleviated our concerns.”

Fowler MP Dai Le, whose electorate is in south-west Sydney, has attacked the federal government for organising the repatriations under “the cloak of secrecy”.

Western Sydney Labor MP Mike Freelander backed the government’s repatriation efforts, saying: “I understand the complaints and think there’s a risk but it’s small.

“We are talking about Australian kids and they need to be brought here.”

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