During National Refugee Week last year, as the Minister for Multicultural Affairs, I had the proud honour of formally declaring our community a 'Refugee Welcome Zone'.
We are the first state or territory to do this. As someone who was born and raised in this city, I have always been proud of the way we have welcomed people seeking refuge.
On Monday, the Chief Minister re-iterated our long-standing commitment to welcoming refugees, alongside other state and territory leaders. Now more than ever, Canberrans need to keep doing what we have done for years.
For as long as I can remember, Canberra has been a community where people going about their daily lives actively work to make sure other people feel welcome, valued, where their difference is respected and where they experience equality. We see this from the diversity that thrives in our workplaces, our schools and sporting clubs. We see this from refugees living amongst us, who have called Canberra home for longer than I have been alive.
We saw this last year when over 260,000 of us enjoyed the hundreds of stalls and events that made for a successful multicultural Festival, and we will see it again this weekend at the festival's 20th celebration. The benefits of our community making Canberra a truly inclusive and welcoming space are enormous, and as a community we all need to take responsibility for making inclusion a real thing.
I saw that community last September when speaking to the hundreds of Canberrans, gathered at a vigil on Northbourne Avenue, acknowledging the death of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi' and the many others who have lost their lives while seeking the refuge of a community like ours. I saw our community respond warmly to the prospect of Canberra receiving 250 Syrian and Iraqi refugees as one part of a national response. Canberrans want to do more. We want to offer basic human decency.
As at November 2015, there were 1852 people in Australia's immigration detention facilities including 70 children in Nauru, in what the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has described as harsh and well below international standards. A recent report published by the Australian Human Rights Commission shows that immigration detention is a dangerous place for children.
Data from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection describes numerous incidents of assault, sexual assault and self-harm in detention environments. Places like Manus Island, Nauru and Darwin's Wickham Point Detention Centre are far removed from us here in Canberra, both physically and in other ways. Sometimes it is beyond our imagination that such places exist, but what is out of sight, should not be out of mind.
All of us, especially parents, know full well what displacement can mean – a new community, new friends, new neighbours, a new home, and a new school. For many refugees, a move to Canberra will mean a chance to access support that they may not have had, and which many of us take for granted. We are having the important conversations we need to have with a cross section of our community, because being a Refugee Welcome City requires a community wide response. It requires a community who extends great generosity when the need arises. Canberra is this kind of community.
I have met with over 40 representatives from our local refugee service providers to get a sense of their capacity to support an increase of refugees over and above their current numbers. I also spoke with the Canberra Business Chamber and the Real Estate Institute to plan for the jobs and housing which will need to be available for these people. We have been and we will continue to build the capacity of our city to meet its responsibilities as a Refugee Welcome Zone.
The Australian Government is responsible for identifying and processing new refugees and I have been in contact with my Commonwealth counterparts in advocating for those people we expect to see arrive in coming months. When they do arrive, I remain confident in our community's readiness to settle and support them.
With other states and territories raising the question of what each of us across the nation can do to encourage the Australian Government to offer a more generous and a fair response to refugees, we have the chance to look at the big picture. I see it as a great measure of our city's character that we have been able to lead the nation in creating a widely embraced culture of providing vital support and services for those who need them most. The ACT is a Refugee Welcome Zone, and Australia must be too.
Yvette Berry, Minister for Multicultural Affairs