How Lebanese Australians have been left high and dry

PRIME Minister John Howard has been hit with a barrage of criticism that he has not done enough to help Lebanese-Australians trapped in Beirut because of their ethnic origin. On another front, mass demonstrations have been held in many Australian cities in protest against his support for Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon.

By Ross Peake

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Published: Mon 24 Jul 2006, 11:23 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:43 PM

Australia has huge links with Lebanon —there are 25,000 people with dual Australian and Lebanese citizenship living in Lebanon. They have thousands and thousands of relatives in Australia, many of whom were visiting family members when the war broke out.

Just days after the Israeli attack began, the Australian embassy in Beirut was closed for the weekend. Staff were working inside but people telephoning had to listen to a recorded message directing them to a web site. There was panic in Australia as the bombs rained down on Beirut, the embassy was closed and power was cut off in many parts of Lebanon.

Other nations were much quicker to get ships into Beirut to evacuate their citizens. Australia was hampered by not having any warships or large ferries in the region. Therefore a risky overland mission was formulated as the initial rescue plan. Over two days, a total of 200 people were bused to Syria, along the coastal route where an Italian convoy was almost hit. As it became clear Israel was intent on a massive strike, the Australian government was urged to drop the bus plan and hire ships.

Howard told people to be patient, repeating that his government was doing all it could. Indeed, embassy staff were working frantically to arrange evacuations for the 7,000 Australians who quickly registered at the embassy. But the problem was the perception that nothing was happening, except for politicians talking. Then a bungle — the first ferry chartered by the Australian embassy was double booked.

The Turkish charter company honoured the Canadian booking but dumped Australia‚s firm booking. The blame was directed at the Howard government, however unfair that was.

In the end, the ferry was not able to enter the chaotic port. However the Lebanese-Australians were very angry after waiting all day in the sun with bombs falling nearby. Anne Nicholas and her mother May were stranded on the road after the ferry bungle. She said the Australian embassy could not find a hotel room for them and only the kindness of a passing stranger gave them shelter for the night. She said embassy staff failed to inform them of the double booking as they waited in the heat. She was incensed that she only heard of the bungle during telephone calls from distraught relatives in Australia. "It’s disgusting what the [Australian] government has done to us, they’ve treated us like dogs," she said. Her mother May, who was born in Lebanon, said the frustrated Australian citizens waiting for the phantom ferry were as angry as they were scared. "If I had blonde hair and white skin maybe the government would help me," she said.

That claim of discrimination echoed around Australia, and people with Lebanese background said they were being treated like second class citizens. Howard was stung by the accusation and said it was offensive and insulting.

The evacuation of the thousands of Australians out of Lebanon will certainly be Australia’s biggest ever shift of civilians. However the speed of the rescue mission is being compared to the response to the Bali bombings in 2002 which killed 200 people including 88 Australians.

Within hours of the blast, two Australian Hercules aircraft were flying to Indonesia carrying specialist medical teams. Australia’s response was so swift that British nationals who could not get help from their own officials went to the Australians. The Howard government argues that Bali was "close to home" and the Middle East is not, and therefore the roles have reversed —a British warship gave the Aussies a lift out of Lebanon.

The frustration about the Howard government boiled over in a protest rally of 15,000 in Sydney, where the Prime Minister was denounced for supporting Israel’s attacks. Australian Arabic Council deputy chairman Taimor Hazou told a similar rally in Melbourne that the Australian government had failed to pressure for a ceasefire.

At a rally in Canberra, even a Catholic Bishop criticised the Australian government for not taking an even handed approach. By this week the government expects to have evacuated most of the Australian citizens who wish to leave, but there remain grave doubts about 400 families in the south of Lebanon. The mass evacuation to Cyprus will cost Australia $25 million but it is also offering to fly Australians home for free, in what is seen as making up for the early tardiness of its rescue plan.

Ross Peake is a Canberra-based political analyst

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