Joint press conference with H.E. Mr Gebran Bassil, Lebanese Minister for Foreign Affairs and Emigrants

  • Transcript, E&OE, proof only
22 April 2014

MINISTER BISHOP: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here. As Australia's Foreign Minister, I am delighted to have this opportunity to visit my counterpart Foreign Minister from Lebanon. This is my first visit here as Foreign Minister. Australia and Lebanon have a very deep relationship based on the number of Lebanese-Australians who live in our country. In fact, there are about 400,000 Australians of Lebanese origin living in Australia. Those people-to-people links underpin a close relationship. I am here for two reasons. First, to enhance our bilateral relationship with a country with whom we share a number of common interests and common values. I am here also to express the support of the Australian Government for the new Government here in Lebanon, the political independence, the sovereignty of Lebanon. Its stability and prosperity are very important, not only to the region, but to Australia and the rest of the world.

The second reason for my visit is to see first-hand the impact of the Syrian conflict on neighbouring countries, including Lebanon. I think that the international community needs to be aware of the pressure that Lebanon is under as a result of a number of people claiming refugee status and coming to Lebanon and the burden that this country is having to bear as a result of the conflict in neighbouring Syria.

Australia has provided support in the form of humanitarian assistance in Syria. Yesterday I announced a further initiative – $20 million of Australian funding, in addition to the $110 million that we have already provided. This initiative is the United Nations' No Lost Generation campaign to support children of Syrian refugees, who are not receiving an education. We want to ensure that we don't lose another generation of young people to a lifetime of disadvantage.

Our relationship with Lebanon is strong, but I believe that there could be even more to this relationship, including trade and investments interests. I know that there are a number of Australian companies, who are considering the potential of investing in Lebanon's oil and gas sector. So I hope that there are some initiatives that can come to fruition.

I have had very productive meetings today with the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker, and now with the Foreign Minister. So, Foreign Minister, thank you very much for your generous hospitality. I look forward to you coming back to Australia, where I know you will be very well received not only by the Lebanese community, but by the Australian community as a whole. Thank you.

MINISTER BASSIL (addressing reporters): Do you have any questions for the Minister?

AL DIYAR NEWSPAPER (in English): Are you ready to receive some Syrian refugees in your country?

MINISTER BISHOP: Yes indeed. The Minister for Immigration has already announced that, in addition to the humanitarian places that we provide in any event, Australia, within that component, will accept 500 Syrian refugees, and we've increased that in recent times to one thousand. We know that there are enormous pressures on neighbouring countries. Australia is a very long way away, but we hope that a number of countries will be able to make that kind of commitment.

VOICE OF LEBANON RADIO STATION (in English): What about the presidential elections in Lebanon? Do you support any candidate?

MINISTER BISHOP: I would never deign to interfere in the presidential elections of another country. But I am aware that you have elections coming up – indeed tomorrow is the first round, as I understand from the Foreign Minister. Australia's hope is that there continues to be prosperity and stability in Lebanon and that we are able to work with the international community and with Lebanon to resolve some of the pressures that Lebanon is facing as a result of the Syrian crisis. But I will leave to the Lebanese people the decision as to who is going to be the President.

MINISTER BASSIL (speaking in English): I was very happy to receive today the Foreign Affairs Minister of Australia. I had the chance to thank her for what the Lebanese immigrants are receiving as good hospitality in your country. We really thank you. We always hear the thanks coming from the Lebanese to your Government for the good reception they are having. We realize how much this is strengthening normally and naturally the relations between our two countries. I hope this visit will open the way for better cooperation and a more fruitful cooperation in trade and energy, on top of the human trade that is safe and normal we are having between our two peoples. Thank you.

MINISTER BASSIL (proceeding in Arabic): Our meeting today presented an opportunity for Australia's Foreign Minister to enquire about the issues that are of concern to Lebanon, notably the issues of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and terrorism. I explained the situation and highlighted the negative impact that the Syrian crisis is having on Lebanon. With Australia being home to 400,000 Lebanese, I pointed to a first-time phenomenon, that of 68 Lebanese, who left Lebanon out of despair and migrated illegally to Australia. Australia exercised its natural right and refused them entry, because they travelled illegally. They were temporarily placed on an island. We are cooperating with the Australian State to bring them back to Lebanon, because these Lebanese citizens are dear to us. We would like to have them back in Lebanon, where they would lead the decent life they are worthy of.

This phenomenon shows the despair that has pushed the Lebanese from the dear towns of Akkar to leave their country, because, in addition to their day-to-day problems, they had to grapple with another crisis, that of Syrian refugees. Her Excellency the Minister showed understanding to the fact that Lebanon cannot accommodate this huge number of refugees. I drew a comparison with Australia, and said, "Imagine that 10 million Lebanese arrive in Australia all at once within a short time span. Will Australia be able to accommodate them?" The Minister answered, with deep affection for the Lebanese, saying that Australia did not have this absorption capacity. I hope that the international community at large will show the same sympathy and capacity to grasp the problem as the dear Minister. Again, we plead assistance from the international community to the Lebanese State and to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). This will enable the Lebanese State to address the issue of refugees in the manner it deems appropriate, without perpetuating the stay of refugees in Lebanon. On the other hand, assistance should be also provided to the LAF that are fighting terrorism on behalf of the whole world. Terrorism, which is penetrating Lebanon and using it as a launching pad, will spill over into all the other countries, and no country in the world will be able to bear what Lebanon is bearing. For this reason, we have also sought the assistance of Australia, which is a friend of Lebanon, to the LAF in their war on terror. I hope that this will be translated into reality in the near future. I would like to welcome the Australian Minister again in Lebanon, and I look forward to meeting again on Australian territory.

Thank you.

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