House debates

Thursday, 10 August 2006

Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006

Second Reading

12:30 pm

Photo of Andrew RobbAndrew Robb (Goldstein, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) Share this | Hansard source

in reply—Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker Somlyay. I acknowledge your status as, I believe, the only MP to come to Australia as a refugee, back in 1949. I thank members for their contributions to the second reading debate on the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006. For 60 years Australia’s proud migration and refugee settlement record has been built on three crucial foundations: a firmly regulated and planned immigration program, an effective border control system and programs to effectively integrate migrants into our community.

This bill is necessary to maintain the strength of our border control measures. It is necessary to maintain the integrity and honour associated with our nation’s longstanding success in integrating people from the four corners of the globe. It is necessary to prevent Australia from being used as a staging post for political protests. In other words, this bill will act to protect Australia’s sovereignty, not diminish it. In contrast to the weakness and the opportunism of the Labor position, this bill will strengthen our border controls, not weaken them.

This bill is also about consistency between those who arrive by boat at an excised offshore area and the mainland. It removes the distinction based on where a person lands and ensures all unauthorised sea arrivals have their asylum claims processed offshore. While removing the incentive to reach mainland Australia, we have also significantly enhanced arrangements for processing asylum claims in a humane and compassionate way, and we have preserved Australia’s very strong commitment to its protection obligations under the refugees convention and other relevant human rights instruments.

This bill is also about ensuring that Australia’s limited capacity to provide places for refugees is filled by those most in need. Every year Australia welcomes thousands of refugees from camps in some of the most desperate parts of the world, many of whom have been waiting many years for resettlement and none of whom would have any chance of reaching Australia as unauthorised boat arrivals.

In 2004 Australia ranked second in the world for numbers of refugees resettled, with 14,122 visas granted, and that is not a new trend. Historically Australia has ranked third, behind the US and Canada, in terms of humanitarian intake—a very proud record over 55 years. Importantly, this bill protects our ability to maximise our intake of these refugees, whom we as an independent nation choose to resettle and who enter our country lawfully.

In 2001 this government made a promise to the Australian people that we would take all reasonable steps to ensure that unauthorised boats did not arrive, did not land on our shores. The measures we took in 2001 to excise certain islands—measures supported by the opposition—discouraged people from getting into boats and embarking on highly dangerous journeys. As a consequence, we have avoided loss of life and we have avoided unauthorised boat arrivals until recently.

Those excision measures, together with other steps taken by the government, worked and have been very effective. The 2001 measures discouraged people smugglers from manipulating our migration entry arrangements. At the time, the government’s response asserted Australia’s sovereignty to be able to deal with those issues. It is not a dereliction of Australia’s sovereignty to prevent people from manipulating our migration entry arrangements. In fact, it is an act of asserting Australia’s sovereignty.

The suggestion has been made that these changes before the House are at the behest of Indonesia. Let me make it very clear: Indonesia does not determine our policies. The Australian government determines our policies, which are in the best interests of the Australian people. Part of the design of this legislation is to ensure our system cannot be manipulated by those seeking to use our system for political advantage. It is quite clear that some people in West Papua and Australia decided that asylum seekers would make the hazardous canoe journey to Australia rather than walk to Papua New Guinea, as they had in the past, with the deliberate intention of fostering tensions between Australia and Indonesia.

The government has decided to have such future claims processed offshore rather than give these people the opportunity to manipulate our migration entry arrangements to create a staging post for political protest. The changes allow genuine refugee claims to be determined and dealt with without the risk that our system will be used to suit the political purposes of others. Surely, in not leaving our system open to be used in this manner, as the Labor Party would have it, we are very clearly asserting our sovereignty and, in the process, we are maintaining the strength and integrity of our migration and refugee settlement program.

The refugees convention does not prescribe how states must give effect to their international obligations. The convention allows a host country to restrict the movements of a refugee who is unlawfully within the country until the person’s immigration status is regularised or they are admitted into some other country. The new arrangements contained in this bill draw on this flexibility. They ensure that all people continue to have access to a reliable refugee assessment process. Refugees will also be protected from involuntary return to their homeland if they are found to be refugees.

Designated unauthorised arrivals will only be taken offshore for processing of their asylum claims to a declared country, and a country may only be declared by the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs if it meets significant protection and human rights standards.

Unauthorised arrivals taken to Nauru, a declared country, will be processed by officers of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. Applicants will be able to seek a merits review of their refugee status determination in line with the non-binding international guidance on standards for refugee status determination procedures.

Historically, figures for processing in offshore processing centres have compared favourably with onshore figures in terms of positive determinations. The overall refugee approval rate for people in offshore processing centres who chose not to voluntarily return to their homeland was 94 per cent. This compares favourably with the 89 per cent approval rate under Australia’s onshore protection visa process for unauthorised arrivals who applied for protection visas between mid-1999 and mid-2005.

This bill includes mechanisms for scrutiny. There is a requirement that the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs report to the minister on arrangements for designated unauthorised arrivals who make asylum claims. These arrangements relate to accommodation, health—including mental health—education and processing of their asylum claims. The secretary must provide details of the number of asylum claims processed and the numbers granted refugee status in the financial year. The minister is required to table this report in both houses of parliament within 15 sitting days.

Other checks and balances to ensure the integrity of the arrangements and the fair treatment of asylum seekers include: merits reviews; independent legal advice to claimants; 90 days for the initial refugee status decision; an independent review within 90 days of that decision; ministerial powers to intervene and grant a visa; Ombudsman’s powers to investigate actions and report to parliament; an independent review of the legislation in two years time; a five-year sunset clause in the provisions which extend the offshore processing regime to all sea arrivals, including those to the mainland; and women and children not to be detained—they will be housed in residential style community accommodation.

So, far from being regressive, this bill in fact essentially implements the changes that were seen last year as progressive for onshore processing. It would in fact implement a system far better and fairer than that experienced by thousands of asylum seekers around the world.

Our opponents have sought to bring down this bill. They have tried to suggest it will weaken Australia’s sovereignty. Nothing could be further from the truth. This bill is about protecting Australia’s sovereignty. It is about deciding who can come here. It is about giving thousands of people waiting in refugee camps around the world their chance to come to Australia, not leaving them waiting in the queue while others who come here illegally take their places in our humanitarian program. It was none other than the Leader of the Opposition, the member for Brand, who said in this parliament nearly five years ago:

It is in the national interest of all Australians to have our borders effectively protected. It is in the national interest of all Australians that our generous attitude towards refugees is not undermined by people who seek to flout that generosity by placing themselves ahead of others in the queue who are determined by an orderly process to be more deserving.

It is sad that weak political opportunism fogs the memory of the member for Brand in 2006.

This bill marks an important strengthening of Australia’s border control measures by providing a single and consistent set of rules to apply to unauthorised boat arrivals who unlawfully enter our migration zone—whether that be around islands, such as Christmas Island or Cocos, or the mainland. It is wrong, or disingenuous, to assert, as Labor does, that the migration zone has been changed in any way through this legislation. It has not. The bill merely defines what rules will apply if you unlawfully enter the migration zone by sea. It is the sovereign government that determines those rules. We have never abandoned sovereignty. We are making the decisions about who comes here. We are maintaining control of our borders while preserving our very strong commitment to protection obligations under the refugees convention. As a country, we are strong and fair on these matters and generous to a fault. I commend the bill to the House and table the supplementary explanatory memorandum.

Question put:

That this bill be now read a second time.

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