Thursday, 10 August 2006
Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006
Debate resumed from 9 August, on motion by Mr Robb:
That this bill be now read a second time.
The change that is proposed by the government is essential. It is essential to preserve equal treatment of refugees so that we can give priority to the most needy. The position being advocated by the opposition is a flawed policy currently in place which has proven to have the following main consequences: (1) it kills people by luring them or encouraging them onto the high seas, where they will drown; (2) it condemns the most needy refugees to rot and die in African detention camps while we give priority to others comparatively safe and well in Indonesia.
Twelve months ago the government was stampeded into supporting changes that have this effect. The 43 Papuans who came from Jayapura and risked their lives and the lives of their children on the high sea were coming, they said, to the mainland of Australia. Why did they do that? Why did they come to the mainland? Because the ill-advised law rushed into place in Australia told them that such a course would give them a better outcome than crossing safely into Papua New Guinea or going to a Torres Strait island. They brought children with them. Why? Because those same ill-advised laws ensured that, if they took that risk and they put that risk to their children, they would be released into the Australian community—and that is exactly what has happened. They have been released into the Australian community.
We often focus on that one boat of 43 refugees from April this year. We talk about that one boat that left from Jayapura, but in fact, as I illustrated earlier on in my speech last night, there were two boats that left Jayapura. Boat 2 sank. People drowned. There were bodies in the water. Although no-one can say for sure that that boat was following directly in the wake of boat 1—it may have been going somewhere else—it certainly was carrying asylum seekers. If that was the case and it was following directly in the wake of boat 1, I say that those deaths can be put down directly to the flawed policies now being urged on us by the opposition.
These policies, these laws, must be changed, because we cannot continue to give that kind of incentive to desperate people to take to the sea in boats, particularly when it is a matter of fact that, from Indonesia or from other locations, people can apply to seek refugee status in Australia. Even if you are in West Papua and you are a freedom fighter—or whatever you might want to say about your position over there—you can cross the border into Papua New Guinea and you can make an application for refugee status in Australia from there. That is still a lot safer than taking to the sea in a canoe. Last night I gave the quotes from the people on that boat that successfully arrived in Australia about how they ran out of food, how the motors on the boat conked out and how they were crying and in fear for their lives when the high seas hit them.
We cannot continue to endorse that kind of policy. We cannot continue to give support to policies that will (1) kill people by luring them onto the high seas where they will drown and (2) condemn the most needy refugees to rot and die in African detention camps while we give priority to others comparatively safe and well in Indonesia. I gave two examples of that last night. I spoke about the 43 West Papuans and the circumstances of how they came to be on the sea and the risks that they faced. I also spoke about that one poor soul from the Sudan who was bombed and strafed as a child and fled over the border and across the desert to Ethiopia and was then bombed and strafed there and fled across to Kenya. He was in a refugee camp there where raping and killing was going on all the time. He was bombed and attacked there and then made it to Australia by what he thought was basically a fluke, a whim or an act of God. That guy is now in Australia and he is what I would say is a very needy man, someone whose case needs to be considered by this government and not pushed back by people who jump to the front of the queue, who come here in a boat, who risk their own lives and put the lives of their children at risk just to jump that queue and give themselves the priority they otherwise would not have and which they do not deserve in the worldwide scheme of things.
I want to say one thing that I feel very strongly about in this circumstance. If we do not make these changes, there will be other boats and there will be other deaths. We can heap them up and keep a total of these deaths but, if we do not make these changes, more people will die on the high seas and it will be down to the flawed and wrong policies that are currently in place and that are luring people onto the sea in this way and causing them to die. We need to make changes to ensure people are equally assessed across the world. The most needy must get the best chance. People who are safe but still want to apply will get the opportunity to apply, but they will not get the kind of rolled gold, red carpet treatment that is being urged on us by the opposition to the detriment of the most needy. It is shameful, it is deceitful, it is wrong and it is unprincipled for them to do that.
I rise with my colleagues to oppose the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006. This legislation, notwithstanding some attempts to ameliorate it, cannot be saved. It shows clearly that the government never really believed in the reforms they proposed in 2005 to seek to accommodate the rebels in their midst. If anything proves that, it is the speech by the member for Blair which we have just heard. It is stunning. I know the member for Blair and I do not regard him as a bad man, but I do not know if he appreciates quite how callous those remarks that he just made were and the implications of them. I am not quite sure. He is implying, of course, that people deliberately put their children at risk to advance themselves in the queue not because they are in genuine fear but for self-advancement. He is implying that the legislation he voted for last year was appalling and unprincipled. The double standards are almost breathtaking.
It does not really matter what the member for Blair thinks—the member for Blair thinks whatever the government thinks. It matters that the government came in here preaching high virtues last year, saying: ‘We won’t incarcerate children. We won’t put people in circumstances where they lose the right to have their cases reviewed. We will no longer detain people indefinitely.’ It was applauded by me, amongst others, and I congratulated the member for Kooyong for it at the time as a step forward; but what we have now is a great leap backwards. It is the government saying, ‘We absolutely repudiate our 2005 reforms now in the face of pressure from international friends.’
I agree with the remarks made by those on this side, and some on the other side, who have called this bill profoundly disturbing and draconian in its implications. I hope that those who have spoken up from the government side can carry the burden of the pressure that is being put on them and I hope they can bring enough senators with them to defeat this bill. I know to some extent how they feel because I have been somewhat of a recalcitrant on this side—
in my party with regard to this matter. I have never had to face the challenge which my colleagues on the other side face because my party never introduced a piece of legislation like this and the issue has not arisen in the periods in which we have been in government to confront me in this manner. I am not saying we did not do anything wrong when we were in government, I think we did, but they were not on matters of controversial legislation while I was in the parliament. It is not easy.
I welcome the fact that on this occasion—and I am glad that he is in the chamber—the shadow minister for immigration, the member for Watson, has given a lead on this matter which has been strong and principled and which I have been comfortable in supporting and endorsing. I thank him and congratulate him for that.
Let us go to the essential character of this legislation. The three principal characteristics of it that I find totally unacceptable are those which effectively overturn the 2005 legislation as it relates to the incarceration of children, the denial of review and indefinite detention. There has been some attempt made to pretend that this legislation does not have that effect, but we all know that it does and it will not achieve the purpose that the member for Blair was lauding unless it does. If people in Nauru are to be treated exactly the same way as they would be treated in Australia, the legislation could not do what the member for Blair claimed. It can only have that effect if we treat them worse, and it is deliberately designed to do so. It cannot be both. It cannot be both what I heard my ACT colleague Senator Humphries saying it was on radio this morning—merely a continuation of the existing policy with regard to these matters—and the deterrent that the member for Blair is talking about. It cannot be both those things.
This matter does not occur in isolation. It is part of a long history in Australia of the easy appeal to fear. Australia has had a long history of seeing ourselves under threat: that somehow or other the force of gravity is going to make people sweep down from the north into our country. It goes back to the White Australia policy and the formation of the Labor Party, when our party was very much committed to the White Australia policy on the ground of fear as to what would happen as the hordes came sweeping in. It took a long time for all of the major parties to change their policies and fundamentally they all have, but, because of that underlying element in Australia about the hordes that may come flooding down, it has always been the easy political option in Australia to appeal to fear and it has always been the hard political option to resist that and appeal to the better angels of our nature.
That is always harder politically, and in recent history the easy option has been a temptation to which the government has succumbed with enthusiasm, particularly since 2001, when we had images of a flood, which was of course minor by international standards. But most significantly, given this bill before us, the number of people, even in that so-called flood, who were coming by boat always was a very distinct minority of asylum seekers. If the intent of government policy had been to deter asylum seekers, everybody seeking asylum would have been treated the same way. But it was only those who were seeking asylum and were on the front page of the Daily Telegraph who were treated this way. It was not a policy about border protection. It was not about protecting Australia from people seeking asylum; it was about protecting the government from the Daily Telegraph. It had bad photos on the front, so something had to be done and we dealt with the minority who come by boat with draconian legislation but kept exactly the same rules for other people who sought asylum.
The government’s own figures show that in the last four years boat arrivals were three to four per cent of all unauthorised arrivals. In 2003-04 they were about 1½ per cent. In fact, in 2004-05 there were no individuals seeking asylum arriving by boat. But, even at the peak of the political controversy in 2001, slightly more than 25 per cent but less than 26 per cent—almost exactly a quarter—of asylum claims were by boat arrivals, yet we had draconian legislation about those people and nothing about the rest. I do not think we should have done about the rest what we did about the boat people, because I did not agree with what we did about them. It was the height of hypocrisy; it was double standards of the first order, compounded by the fact that the high point of the debate was that the people concerned ‘would never set foot in Australia’.
What is the result? About a year ago we got to the situation—and I cannot tell you the exact situation today, because my latest data is almost a year old—where, of the 958 refugees processed on Nauru, 559 had been resettled in Australia, some of them in my electorate. I am very happy to have them. I met here in this building a young man who was not the last person to leave Nauru, because some of them were single individuals, but was in the last family to leave Nauru. He was learning English at the Secondary Introductory English Centre, which is in my electorate. He was with people who came to the parliament for a familiarisation course. I spoke to them in the public gallery. He is a very fine young man who is very welcome in my community. But in the election he was never going to ‘set foot in Australia’—and I can tell you that he is living in Watson and is doing very well. So all of that was a political stunt for the times, because the legislation would have had to have other character and other consequences had it been genuine.
I have another concern, which is the implications of this legislation for Australia’s standing as it relates to the refugee convention. I am a bit of a critic of the refugee convention. I think it is out of date and needs fundamental review. I certainly do not think that Australia should implement bad laws merely because an international convention says we should. I am not one of those who think we should be a slavish adherent. There are some elements of some international treaties which I would not wish to see in Australian law. If it were up to me, I would be seeking internationally to review the refugee convention.
But there are some bedrock elements of the refugee convention that must not be changed, and they are put at threat by this legislation, in particular article 33(1), which says you do not return people who may face human rights abuses. That is at the very core of the refugee convention; without that you do not have one. There are elements about how it should be dealt with that I think are out of date. They were written for the Cold War period and are no longer as relevant to the nature of the refuge that people seek as refugees these days. But those concerns which I have do not go to this legislation, because this legislation goes to the core of what the international community, including Australia—including this government, which says it adheres to the refugee convention—say that we think that the fundamental principles of the refugee convention are: the fundamental humanitarian obligations of every nation and that we should never return people who may face human rights abuses. I do not say that the government would deliberately set out to do that; I am sure that it would not. But this legislation removes the protections for people who may face that.
I will go now to the detail. We have had a controversial report from the Edmund Rice Centre about concerns with regard to people who might have been sent back to hazardous circumstances in Afghanistan and Iraq. What have they got for their troubles? Abuse. I know some of the people associated with that organisation. I do not agree with everything that they say, but they are fine and principled people and they would not have made that allegation lightly. I hope those allegations are examined seriously. Even if you do not accept the concerns they have expressed, let us have a look at the consequences for people who are denied—as people under this legislation will be—access to the refugee tribunal.
The Refugee Review Tribunal has overturned decisions by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to send 3,200 people back to Iraq and Afghanistan. Those 3,200 people would have been sent back had they not had access to an appeal. That might make some people unhappy—they might wish that they had gone back. But what that means is that an independent tribunal appointed by this government concluded that those people would be genuinely at risk if they were sent back to Afghanistan and Iraq. Let us say that the tribunal is 90 per cent wrong—I do not think that they are, but let us say that they are. That then means that 320 people have been saved from being sent back to the risk of persecution. I would not support a law that sent one person back. I am not saying that other people in this House would callously do that. I know many of the people speaking on the other side of this debate and they are people of goodwill, but they have to look at the consequences of what they do, whatever the motivation. And the consequence is that in the future the next 3,200 people, were they to be subject to this law, would not have access to that review and would be sent back. That goes to the very heart of why we offer refuge: so that people will not be sent back if they may face human rights abuses. There are allegations that we have done so. In this legislation there is a removal of the protection that will prevent us from doing so in the future.
What this shows is that the process concerns that people on this side of the House, people on the other side and people in the public debate have been raising are not just the technical legal obsessions of lawyers about process. The checks and balances of our legal system and our system of administrative review are not there for fun; they are there because, although Australia is very well served by its public service, we all know that public servants, like everybody else, can make mistakes, and we need a process of review. It is especially important here because in this area of administration the consequences of getting it wrong can be tragic. To consciously set out to deny review of a decision can have profound consequences. To put it generally, the consequence could be being sent back to human rights abuses—but it could be more stark than those mere words ‘human rights abuses’ indicate; it could mean torture or death, as in the allegations raised recently here in Australia.
My concern is that the legislation is profoundly unfair. It is totally unnecessary. The amendments that are being contemplated cannot save it. I say to the government and to the people who are considering how they might vote—not just the four who have said so but also the others who are considering how they might vote—do not go down this path. The parliament and the processes of government in Australia are under challenge. This is happening not just in Australia but in every Western democracy, because people think that opportunism is sometimes prevailing over their interests. Sometimes people think that and I think they are wrong, sometimes people think that and I think they are right; but it does not matter. We need here to take a stand. This is an important stand. I welcome the fact that the opposition has taken it. I welcome the fact that the minor parties are supporting it. I hope Family First does too. I particularly congratulate on their courage the people who have taken the decision to say that they will not support this legislation. I hope they are joined by others, because I profoundly wish that Australia does not go down this path and that we seek a positive role in the future review of refugee arrangements, not the negative role which we have played in recent years and which is reflected in this legislation.
I completely refute the statement that Australia has played a negative role in the settlement of refugees. Australia leads the world with its settlement and compassionate programs, and the Labor Party are vile and contemptible in trying to paint the picture in any other way. Let us have a look at what the Labor Party did when they were in office. They established a program of humanitarian care. There was no refugee test or UNHCR test; there was something that the minister declared to be of interest to the Australian government. They did not observe any international covenants or processes; they took anybody that the minister designated as important under the special humanitarian program. That is not a humane program. That is a political program.
This government has looked around the world for those most in need and taken people in large numbers. Proportionately we have one of the largest programs in the world for the size of our nation and for our capacity to settle refugees. I am proud of the programs that we have introduced because they are based on need. I invite members of the opposition to have a look at what is happening outside Australia’s borders and to have a look at the human rights issues in Indonesia—and they are not perfect, I acknowledge that. Let us have a look at Darfur and Sudan and see whether or not you are willing to compare the people that Australia is bringing from those nations to the boat people who happen to get here because they have paid somebody or because they are inventive enough to get hold of a canoe and paddle to Australia. There is a huge difference between these two classes of people, and if we lose sight of that then we lose sight of a humanitarian program to support those in most need around the world. I think this opportunistic approach to what is need and to refugees is just a wrong and an inhumane approach.
The reports I have from international organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide are that, in Sudan, 1.6 million people have been displaced, 20,000 have fled to Chad and 70,000 deaths have occurred since February 2003. That is just in one area. If you look at the surveys of what has gone on in those places, you will see that in September last year the World Health Organisation revealed that between 6,000 and 10,000 displaced persons were dying each month in the camps. These are refugee camps—humanitarian refuges—and people are dying in them at the rate of 6,000 to 10,000 a month.
Are the Labor Party serious when they say we need to give preference to people who can get here by boat or pay someone to come to Australia? There is a huge difference between the needs of those people and those dying at those rates in what are supposed to be places of refuge—they are called refugee camps—for people who are displaced. Why are they dying? They are dying of malnutrition, of disease and because the armies of the Sudanese government are bombing refugee camps—something that has never occurred before in the management of displaced people. The targets are actually the refugee camps.
The stories are particularly appalling, and the UN has documented them. Female displaced people risk being robbed, abused, threatened, beaten with whips and gang-raped as they undertake the traditional female task of seeking firewood. Sudanese authorities deny these reports, often claiming that their soldiers are disciplined and follow strict sharia. That is absolutely proven to be wrong. The Australian Labor Party, rather than deal with the issues that confront the world and that should confront Australia, would rather play games with people who can get into canoes and who can seek a better way of life in Australia.
If I were in their position, I admit I would do everything to improve the way of life for my family. I would want to escape from an area that was oppressive. I would want to escape to something that offered me greater economic prospect. I would want to seek a better way of life. But that is not the same as being a refugee. A refugee, according to the United Nations, is very specific, and the way in which they should be managed is also specific. If we are going to stray outside that, we will go back to the old days of a Labor minister declaring areas of special humanitarian need, declaring on a political basis without any objective test what areas in the world we are going to take people from, with neither rhyme nor reason. That is the way you lose community support for immigration. That is the way you lose community support for refugee programs. That is the way you despoil and wreck the rationale, the compassionate basis, that should be the very root of our immigration policy.
That is the game the Labor Party want to play. They want to go back to those days where the minister declares areas of interest—no rationale, no reason: ‘Get here on a boat and we’ll declare you a different class of refugee to the type of refugee that the international community is looking at.’ This government has a fine record of compassionate support for refugees. I do not want to see that change, because I think it is impeccable, I think it is reasonable and I think it needs to have a solid basis. We are not talking about a solid basis here today; we are talking about changes to the act that will allow those who can approach Australia a different class of refugee status. They will have hot and cold running lawyers to attack Australian law.
Tell that to the people in the camps in Sudan. Tell them that they will have right of appeal by Australian lawyers flying into those camps to defend their claims! They will not see a lawyer; they will not even see a review. There will be one interview and the decision will be made about whether they come to Australia or not. That is not a fair way of treating people who claim to be refugees: two classes of asylum seekers—one in need and dying in camps; the other strong enough to paddle a canoe or to pay someone to bring them here. They are two different types of people, and they would be treated differently if the Australian Labor Party had its way. It wants to say, ‘If you can arrive on Australian shores, you’ll have hot and cold running lawyers and, not only that, you’ll have numerous appeals through the courts—but, if all that goes wrong, let’s put the ombudsman onto them as well, for the sake of parliament.’ Tell that to the people in Sudan! Tell that to the people in the camps suffering around the world. Tell the genuine refugees we are taking that we will send the ombudsman there to see whether or not they have had a fair deal. You are creating two classes of refugees—a completely intolerable situation when you look at the humanitarian need of the situation.
The government has changed its processing to deal with people who do come onshore, but this proposal is aimed to keep people offshore, deal with them as objectively as possible, search out real need, establish the true refugees and then allow them onshore, with settlement or settlement in a second or third country. What the Australian Labor Party appears to skate over and ignore completely is the international convention on the settlement of refugees. The first goal of settlement is to create a political solution to the conflict and settle people back in their own land. That is the No. 1 goal of the United Nations, endorsed by Australia. The second goal is to have them settle nearby so they may return easily to their country of origin and reclaim their homes, their farms and their land. That is the second option adopted by the United Nations. This is sensible stuff. This is common sense. This is the way refugee management should be handled. The international community recognises it, but it appears that the Australian Labor Party does not want to recognise it. It wants to make up a whole bunch of new rules as we go ahead about how refugees are dealt with worldwide.
The third option, according to the United Nations, is a country of settlement remote from the area, where people will be safe. Australia often gets into the situation where we take people from all around the world as part of our refugee program of 13,000. It is a big program, I would remind the House, for the size of this nation: year in, year out, we take 13,000 people. It does not matter what the economic circumstances are in Australia, we take them. That is our compassionate program, that is our internationally sound program and that is why we can hold our heads high in international fora. Year in, year out, we take 13,000 people, based on these principles: (1) can there be a political settlement?—often there cannot be; (2) can there be safe settlement in a nearby country? I have read to the House the circumstances of refugees from Sudan who fled into nearby countries, dying at the rate of 6,000 to 10,000 a month and then being bombed for the pleasure of the Sudanese government. That is how safe those settlements are. The third option is the least preferred option, according to the United Nations—this is not an Australian conservative government making these rules; these are the United Nations rules on refugees. The United Nations said, ‘Only if those two measures can’t be met should we consider third country settlement some distance from the source of the conflict and the reason for people becoming refugees.’
How are we going to look at these so-called asylum seekers, these refugees that come to Australia by boat? We are going to give them first-class accommodation. There will be water, schooling for the kids, electricity and regular food. There are no threats to their lives, no bombings, no starvation, no ill-health, good medical services—everything that they could want for their safety, security and good health. Compare that with what is going on in the camps, where people have one interview: ‘Yes, you’re in to Australia,’ or ‘No, you’re not.’ What do these people get? They get security, safety, care, good health, good food and a good existence, compared with, in many instances, where they have come from, but not what they ultimately desire.
What they desire is settlement in Australia. Who would not want to settle in Australia? I do not blame them for that; I cannot criticise them for that. I would do that myself for my family, to get a better way of life, but I can understand why any story would be invented, why any tale would be told to achieve that. Compare the situation of a tale told, or a story invented, to the factual reality of what is occurring around the world that you want to turn your back on in order to rescue who you think are genuine people. They may or may not be genuine. Let us have an objective test and put them up against the rest of those claimants and see how they stack up. That is the way we should make the decision and that is the way the government is making the decision, with all of these added things thrown in: hot- and cold-running lawyers, safety for the children, schooling and clean water, which allows people to live a healthy life and one reason why there has been such a large increase in longevity around the world. They can live in those circumstances, have review after review and have lawyer after lawyer. They can even send the Commonwealth Ombudsman to check whether it is real and then we will make a decision about whether they should be settled here or elsewhere.
There has been some protest about whether people should be settled here or elsewhere. There seems to be a theme running within the Labor Party that, automatically, whatever their condition they should come and settle here. That is not the way to run a refugee program. If you want to call it something else, call it that and be honest about it. But this is not a refugee program. With refugees, you look for the best outcome for those families and, sometimes, it just happens that settlement is not Australia. Sometimes it is New Zealand, sometimes it is elsewhere in the world, but this government has always done everything possible to ensure the safety and security of those people whom it has found should not settle in Australia.
Why should people be in detention? The simple fact of the matter is that every country that has tried to let them go has found that they never turn up again. Tony Blair tried it and lost 98 per cent of everybody he said could move around in the community. Britain has since adopted many Australian rules and laws regarding the handling of refugees and asylum seekers. People have tried that process. I ask the opposition and my colleagues: what would you do in those circumstances? If you were let go and you thought that you had a chance of escaping and not being found again, that people were confused by your appearance and your name, wouldn’t you take that chance? Wouldn’t you seek to escape the officialdom that will declare whether you are a refugee? If you could disappear into the community and say, ‘I am now a resident of the country in which I am seeking to gain residency,’ wouldn’t you take that risk? Of course you would. It is human nature. You try to get the best you can for yourself and your family, and that is what this is about. It is about preservation, aspiration and a new lifestyle. That is what people are on about. The problem is that we need to sort out who is under the hammer, whose life is under threat—those who have faced torture, whose homes have been bombed, whose houses have been burnt down and who have had traumatic experiences. One only has to read some of the stories, both from the UNHCR and other agencies, to realise how serious the circumstances are.
A report prepared in July this year by the United Nations Refugee Agency says the insecurity in the rule of law—the very thing that we seem to be debating here today—in these areas of refugee population has changed dramatically: It states:
On one hand, refugee-populated areas may be the target of direct military attacks …
… … …
A number of different examples can be cited in this respect: attacks on Sudanese refugee settlement in northern Uganda …
Outside Sudan, in Uganda, people have been attacked by the Sudanese army. That is what we are looking at. You cannot compare that with people paddling their canoes to Australia; these are quite different things. We ought to be focusing on these things if we are going to call it a refugee program and a settlement program for refugees. If you are going to reinstall the special humanitarian system, call it that. Let us see your policy. Let us know what you are on about. I do not believe you are really saying that. I believe the Australian Labor Party wants to play games with this issue. Not having a policy is a privilege that oppositions have. The United Nations Refugee Agency report goes on to describe ‘incursions by the armed forces of Burundi into refugee-populated areas neighbouring Tanzania, intended to apprehend combatants and “subversives” living amongst the Burundi population’ in refugee camps.
I do not think the Labor Party or my colleagues have a case. I will go into bat every time for those people whose lives are at risk, whose children are being tortured and raped, whose homes have been destroyed and bombed, whose crops have been destroyed, whose cattle and livestock have been taken by invading armies. That, to me, is a refugee program. This program that the government has put in place is a type of refugee program. People are being given extraordinary support and assistance to make their claim—a claim that is not given to anybody else. The only reason they are given this claim is that they can pay somebody or paddle a canoe—one or the other. In anything that I have read about refugees, whether from the United Nations or from anywhere else in the world, those are not among the criteria that are necessary to establish the needs or the refugee status of anybody.
In 1951 the United Nations convention for the protection of refugees came into force. The world realised the mistakes of the 1930s, when many Western nations turned their backs on Jews fleeing persecution in Germany. Collectively, we said, ‘Never again.’ I am sure that all of us involved in public life would like to think that we would have done the right thing in those circumstances and stood up for those facing the worst of circumstances, regardless of whether it was popular or unpopular. If the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006 passes the parliament today, it will be the day that Australia turned its back on the refugee convention and on refugees escaping circumstances that most of us can only imagine. This is a bad bill with no redeeming features. It is a hypocritical and illogical bill. If it is passed today, it will be a stain on our national character. The people who will be disadvantaged by this bill are in fear of their lives, and we should never turn our back on them. They are people who could make a real contribution to Australia.
This bill represents an extension of the so-called Pacific solution, in which we saw individuals who were processed offshore being treated differently from those processed in Australia. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs said in his second reading speech that the offshore processing system had preserved ‘Australia’s strong commitment to refugee protection’. He is wrong. Let us take a look at how the Pacific solution has worked in practice. This bill extends the Pacific solution, so it is legitimate to look at how it has worked up until now. Firstly, we have seen families of refugees broken up—callously and in contravention of the refugee convention. Spouses of people who have been recognised as refugees in Australia received correspondence from the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, which has been reproduced by Michael Gordon in his excellent book Freeing Ali. It states:
Your claims have been assessed separately from your husband’s claims because you travelled at different times. Under the conditions of your husband’s stay in Australia he is not able to sponsor you. Like all refused asylum seekers you cannot remain in Nauru indefinitely. You should consider voluntary repatriation now.
What a callous piece of correspondence. I agree with Michael Gordon, who said of that letter:
There was only one conclusion to draw: if you wanted to be reunited with your husband, whose fear of persecution if he returned had been judged to be well founded, your only choice was to return and to convince him to leave Australia and confront the very danger he had fled.
Of course, several asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru have had their applications rejected three, four or five times, only to have the government eventually accept their claims. Unlike people processed onshore, people processed offshore have no access to professional assistance. It is hard enough for a well-versed Australian native to understand Australia’s immigration system, let alone somebody with obvious language difficulties who is attempting to come to grips with the massive change in their circumstances. Of course, asylum seekers offshore have no right of appeal to higher authorities. McAdam and Crock highlighted the importance of this in an article in the Australian on 15 May. They said that between 1993 and 2006 the refugee tribunal overturned 8,000 determinations by departmental officers to refuse asylum. Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat will not have this right of appeal if this bill is passed.
Asylum seekers have been encouraged—pressured—to return to the nation they are fleeing when their applications are rejected. The government made it very clear to asylum seekers that, if their application were not successful, they would be involuntarily returned to the country they were fleeing. Some stayed and fought and eventually had their applications approved. Others were returned to their homeland. The results of this are outlined in a report by the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence entitled Return to danger and in a report by the Edmund Rice Centre, which other honourable members have referred to. I cannot vouch for those examples—I am not qualified to say whether they are true or not—but if just one of them is true it damages Australia as a nation.
The biggest problem is that, even if an asylum seeker overcomes all these obstacles and has their application for refugee status accepted, there is no guarantee of a visa to settle in Australia. Someone who makes it to the Australian mainland and has their case as a refugee accepted may not be able to gain a protection visa in this country, and that is a national disgrace. This is something that the government wishes to gloss over; there was no mention of it in the second reading speech to the bill. I must say, for such a major and important piece of legislation to receive the cursory treatment that this bill did in the second reading speech by the parliamentary secretary is an insult to the parliament and to the Australian people. The lack of speakers on this debate from the government side is also insulting.
I also note that this morning the government gagged this debate—the most important debate that we have seen in many years. The government has gagged the debate such that every government member wishing to speak on the bill was given the opportunity to do so but while there are still many opposition members wishing to speak. I am sad that Liberal members on the other side voted for that gag motion.
The parliamentary secretary did at least acknowledge one point in his second reading speech. He acknowledged that this bill was brought about by the granting of asylum to a group of refugees from West Papua. While the government recognised the link, they have not admitted the full story. The government first embraced the Pacific solution for crass electoral reasons, but they are extending the Pacific solution for reasons of crass international appeasement. I happen to think that our relationship with Indonesia is one of our most important. I have spent time in Indonesia. It is a wonderful country and it has made remarkable democratic progress in recent years, but our relationship must be one of mutual respect. In Australia that means respecting the Indonesian legal system, even when we do not like the way some of our own nationals are treated, but Indonesia must respect our system of dealing with asylum seekers. The Howard government changing our system to suit the concerns of another nation is nothing short of a disgrace. The Prime Minister is selling out our national sovereignty. This tragic and discriminatory policy does not come cheap. Taxpayers are paying for the maintenance of offshore detention centres at the cost of $3 million to $4 million a month. They are much more expensive than detention centres in Australia. We have the worst of all worlds—an expensive, discriminatory and tragic policy.
Let me turn to the illogical and hypocritical nature of this bill. In his second reading speech the parliamentary secretary stated that it is ‘incongruous’ that asylum seekers who arrive by boat to excised areas are treated differently to those who arrive by boat to the mainland. But he did not say that it is incongruous that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are treated differently to those who happen to arrive by aeroplane. The government is claiming that the whole rationale of this bill is to fix an illogical outcome—that asylum seekers should be treated the same regardless of where they land. We say that asylum seekers should be treated the same regardless of how they land. We say they should be dealt with fairly, swiftly and on Australian soil.
The government has not changed the situation for asylum seekers arriving by means other than boat, because that is how, in almost every circumstance, asylum seekers from Indonesia arrive. In his contribution, the honourable member for Mitchell talked about the different ways asylum seekers are treated depending on where they are. His contribution suggested that this bill would end that situation—that now asylum seekers in camps in Africa would be treated the same as those who arrived on the Australian mainland. Of course he is wrong. They will not be treated differently if they happen to arrive by aeroplane—if they happen to be able to afford an aeroplane ticket.
The convention on refugees says clearly:
The Contracting States shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin.
This bill contravenes that convention because it treats people differently in Australia depending on what part of the world they have come from and how they arrive. In 2003-04, 1.5 per cent of people seeking asylum in this country arrived by boat. On 9 May 2006 Minister Vanstone stated that unauthorised boat arrivals in the last four years represented three to four per cent of all unauthorised arrivals. So this bill, which the government claims is so necessary to protect our borders, will deal with a maximum of four per cent of unauthorised arrivals in Australia. It is so clearly a sop to international appeasement that I cannot believe government members can come into this House with a straight face and argue otherwise. Far from removing illogicality, the government has embraced it.
In the wake of the Tampa incident, the then Minister for Defence gave instructions that asylum seekers should not be humanised. He instructed that no images be presented, no stories told and no facts relayed which gave a human dimension to the people in such desperate circumstances as the Tampa asylum seekers. He did not want the Australian body politic infected with the view that these people were somehow normal human beings escaping persecution. But, of course, they are human beings and the government cannot stop their stories being told.
I suspect there are government members in this House who will vote for this legislation today but have never met a refugee or talked to them about what they have been through. Of course, some government members have acknowledged great empathy for refugees, and I acknowledge their courage, but I suspect that there are some opposite who have never looked a refugee in the eye. There are few more uplifting experiences than to meet a refugee who has made their home in Australia and is making a contribution to this nation. I met a young Vietnamese woman at the Education Week celebrations in Fairfield a few weeks ago. She came to Australia by boat with her family in 1993. When she arrived she did not speak English. She is now studying medical science at the University of Sydney. She gave a speech at the Education Week celebration about what Australia and its public education system has done for her. She will be giving back to Australia much more than what Australia has given her.
There is also the young man, Zaya Mohamed, who escaped from Afghanistan and attended Holroyd High School in my electorate. He did not know whether his family was dead or alive; he escaped alone. When he arrived, he did not speak English. His schooling had been interrupted and he was hardly literate in his own language. But Zaya did the HSC last year with a view to studying information technology, and a more delightful man you could not hope to meet. It is people like this to whom the government is trying to send a message—the message that they are not welcome.
Not all people seeking asylum in Australia are genuine. Not all deserve to have refugee status, and not all deserve to be granted visas. But what they are entitled to is a fair process, and they are entitled to a swift process. They are entitled to have their claims considered in Australia, and if they are granted refugee status, they are entitled to a refugee protection visa from Australia. This bill denies them those rights.
If this bill is passed, the so-called softer edge which the government put into the detention regime last year, under pressure from a few members opposite and from this side, of course, will be replaced by an edge of barbed wire. Children will be back in detention. The amendments proposed by the government do not stop that. The amendments are, in my view, particularly weak. The amendments talk about taking all reasonable steps to encourage other countries to provide suitable accommodation for children. The amendments call for all reasonable steps to work with another country to uphold the principle that children should be in detention only as a last resort. This parliament cannot pass a law that tells Nauru what to do. Amending this bill is like putting lipstick on a pig. You can put all the lipstick you like on it but it will still be a pig. You can amend this bill all you like but it will still be a bad bill.
What future is there for children in detention? We hear a lot about how important it is to read to our children, to ensure that they are nurtured and to ensure that they have access to resources for a much better chance at life. What future are we delivering to these children? What message will we be sending to them? How will they feel about Australia—an Australia that kept them in detention in their early years? We can only hope that they realise that it is this government that is making them unwelcome, not this nation.
I appeal to the better angels of the nature of those opposite. Some have already expressed their unwillingness to support this legislation. Labor alone cannot defeat this bill. Labor, together with a principled and courageous stand by some members opposite in this House and in the other place, can defeat this bill. It is, as I said, a bill with no redeeming features. We will oppose this bill, and I call on members opposite to join us. If it is passed, it will be repealed by an incoming Labor government. Decency and self-respect as a nation would demand nothing less.
I rise also to oppose the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006. Labor opposes it outright. There is nothing you can do to this excision bill that will fix it. We do not seek to amend it; we will oppose it in its entirety. The bill is shameful and xenophobic. It is cast in denial and reeks of appeasement of the Indonesian government. It is also another broken promise by the Prime Minister of this country—this time to his party colleagues, none of whom are sitting in here at the moment. We have seen some of them with the courage to come into this place and say they oppose it, but we now have a government that is gagging debate. So embarrassed is the government of this debate that it wants to stop it. John Howard ditched commitments he made to his own colleagues last year to make the immigration laws more compassionate. If he cannot be trusted by his own colleagues, he cannot be trusted by the Australian people.
I congratulate those members on the other side who have shown courage in this debate—the members for Kooyong, McMillan, Pearce and Cook—and Senator Troeth for the way in which she is still standing firm against pressure. These people are not rebels. They only want the Prime Minister to honour his promise to them last year. What is wrong with that? Why should people be accused of rebellion simply for insisting on a man honouring his word? He is not any ordinary man; he is the Prime Minister of the country. Peter Costello knows that the Prime Minister breaks his word. We now know that the Prime Minister breaks it in a serial way to his colleagues, just as he has betrayed the trust of Australian people so many times over the years.
In the past, Labor have opposed excision as a solution to our immigration issues. We opposed it as part of the so-called Pacific solution back in 2002. That Pacific solution has been shown to be a costly and ineffective failure. This legislation, in response to the West Papuan refugee issue, will perpetuate that failure of policy. The bill in effect surrenders our borders in the name of protecting them. It is a ludicrous proposition. It says that we defend ourselves by shrinking ourselves. The original excision bill, introduced by the then Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Mr Ruddock, sought to excise all of Australia’s outlying islands—if you like, the islands beyond the mainland. When it was introduced in June 2002, both the minister for immigration and the Minister for Foreign Affairs refused to rule out excision of parts of the mainland from the migration zone, because we said that it was possible to do that. At the time, the minister for immigration took umbrage at our suggestions that you could excise Tasmania, for example. The Prime Minister of the day in fact said that that was a ludicrous proposition.
I remember, in this House, on 17 June, asking the Prime Minister whether he would rule out excising parts of the mainland. This is what the Prime Minister said then:
I want to make it clear that there is no intention—and there never has been—to excise any part of the Australian mainland. That is an absolutely ludicrous proposition.
That is what the Prime Minister said on 17 June 2002. It was ludicrous then and it is ludicrous now. But this bill legislates for the ludicrous. It excises the Australian mainland, the big island, and Tasmania, the little island. The only thing left after this bill is Macquarie Island.
And Heard and McDonald Islands. The parliamentary secretary is joining in the joke. It would be a joke if it was not so serious.
Now, Labor is totally committed to strong and effective border protection, but you do not protect your borders by surrendering them—and that is what this legislation does. Surrendering the outlying islands in 2002 was a strategic mistake. The Labor Party said so at the time. We said it would encourage the people smugglers to aim for the mainland. It was an invitation to them to get to the mainland. Now that we have been proven correct in that analysis the government’s response is to excise the mainland. When the government’s response to xenophobia is to surrender it loses all credibility. And that is what has happened with this legislation.
At the time of our response to the 2002 excision we were very supportive of other measures to stop the people smugglers. We called for deterrence in the form of a coast guard—a cop on the beat to patrol those islands. We called for laws which, by developing international agreements on processing and location, dealt with asylum seekers in the country in which they first landed, not the last country that they headed to, so that they could not country hop. That is what we proposed then.
We also proposed solutions to stem the flow of people whose misery was being exploited by unscrupulous and illegal smugglers. We proposed urging the eight countries in the pipeline of the people smugglers to sign the protocol of the refugee convention, and we proposed that the Prime Minister use his good offices, through CHOGM and other international forums, to get those signatures. We urged the government to get Indonesia and other transit countries to make people-smuggling a crime under their domestic laws. We accepted, as part of the people smuggler deterrent, that it was appropriate to support the special treatment of Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands because of their distance from Australia and their proximity to Indonesia.
This bill continues to ignore all of those constructive solutions. Instead, its solution is to excise Australia from Australia, pretending that none of Australia is Australia. It is absurd. This is a response to a circumstance in which we were not confronted by people smugglers but by genuine West Papuan refugees—genuine, as determined under Australian law. The government has resorted to a solution—a solution that the Prime Minister said was ludicrous—to deny the very operation of that same Australian law.
We believe that the government did the right thing in accepting the West Papuans. But the government could not stand the heat of the Indonesian response so it rolled over, and this is the solution. So we are having this debate today, until the government brings the gag in to stop the debate, on this bill to appease Indonesia. In it we are asked to accept that ‘designated unauthorised arrivals’ may be removed to a declared country outside Australia—namely, Manus Island or Nauru. They are to be removed there for the processing of any claims for refugee protection—not under our law, but under the refugee convention.
Just understand the hypocrisy of that dimension of this issue. Can you remember that the government in this place, time and time again, said they were never going to cede Australian law to international authorities and that we would determine the law that would apply here and we would not have it determined by international bodies such as the UN? They bagged the UN left, right and centre when it suited them over that misplaced, misguided involvement in the war in Iraq. They bagged the UN, but this proposal adopts the refugee convention as the alternative to Australian law for the processing of these refugees.
In this proposal the law is made more ridiculous because it only applies, as was mentioned earlier, to those people arriving by boat. What about those who arrive by air—those who can afford to pay the ticket? They will be processed here. Think of this: 43 West Papuan people arrive by boat and the law is changed to stop them coming in in the future. In the meantime, last year alone, over 1,600 people arrived illegally by air. And of those, 40 people applied for protection visas. So here we have the same order of magnitude, the same number of people. How is the government going to explain this dimension of inconsistency in its policy? It is worse than that; it is blatantly discriminatory, because if you can afford to fly to Australia you get Australian law but if you are too poor—if you are escaping repressive regimes where you have no means and you are so desperate to make the rush for asylum that you go in a leaky boat and take all those risks—then you do not get the protection of Australian law. What is fair about that? How does the government justify that? You could understand it if it had a consistent position. It does not. It is a reactive position. That is why we are in this mess today.
The effect of this legislation is to put the kids back behind razor wire. Australian law, which now prevents it, is inoperative. The laws of other countries will apply. All of those so-called ‘softenings’ of the legislation—the assurances from Minister Amanda Vanstone about this harsh legislation, assurances that they have had to give to try and placate those on the other side of this chamber to prevent them from crossing the floor—are no substitute for retaining control of the situation ourselves. How can they be? If you believe in humane treatment, then use your own laws to ensure it. Do not shift the responsibility and abrogate the control. This bill loses that control. In so doing, this country loses its compassion and its obligation to protect the rights of refugees. This is a bill which appeases Indonesia at the expense of people fleeing persecution. Australia should not change or, in this case, abrogate its laws just to please Indonesia or, for that matter, any other country.
Last year we saw some welcome changes to immigration policy by the government. Those changes brought the government’s policy closer to that which Labor had been advocating for many years beforehand. We wanted the government to go further last year but, as far as they went, we supported the changes. Last year, led by John Howard, they agreed that children would no longer be placed in detention, that indefinite detention would cease and case managed mental health care would be introduced, and that the Commonwealth Ombudsman would also become the Immigration Ombudsman and gain independent oversight of people in detention. They were important concessions. They dealt with concerns which were eventually—and I say ‘eventually’—raised by people in the Liberal Party.
This bill reverses all of those reforms. If asylum seekers are to be sent offshore to centres such as Nauru, this bill reverses all of those reforms. That is the broken word I talked of earlier. Asylum seekers will be out of the reach of Australian law if they arrive by boat. If the bill passes, once again children will be in detention; they will be behind razor wire. No wonder there is disquiet in the government ranks. No wonder they want to gag this bill. Razor wire and detention is no place for children, as Australian law now acknowledges. This bill denies that protection. Our fundamental position is that if asylum seekers land in Australia, they should be assessed under Australian law as it now stands and which we want to further amend. If they are found on the high seas escaping an alleged place of persecution, they should be taken to Christmas Island for assessment.
I want to take the opportunity to point out the efforts Labor has consistently made to get reforms in this very important area. On Australia Day 2002 in my first major speech as Leader of the Opposition, I spoke of the riches that migrants to this country had brought us: economic, social and cultural. I believe fundamentally in multiculturalism in this country. I believe it has made Australia a greater place. I said that Australia had successfully settled millions of people, rich and poor, and refugees, while becoming a diverse but united and peaceful people.
This immigration policy, I might add, has essentially always had bipartisan support. It needs it in a country such as ours. That bipartisanship gave us the confidence to build a diverse, tolerant and harmonious nation: a country that we could be proud of; a country that was looked to and held up as an example overseas. That bipartisanship was shattered under the leadership of John Howard. He trashed the bipartisanship in this country. Think about it: no other Liberal leader in this country has done that—not Menzies, not Fraser, not Peacock and not Hewson. And remember this: it was John Howard who lost the Liberal leadership in 1989 because of his anti-Asian remarks. That bipartisanship has essentially been trashed under his leadership, and this bill is in part a reflection of that fact.
Following the Australia Day call to get the kids out from behind the razor wire, in February of that same year I called for a number of measures, including bringing detention centres back under government control, not the privatised rabble that we have seen in existence under this government. I called for the closure of the Woomera detention centre and for media access to detention centres to be allowed. In April 2002, we opposed, as I have said before, the original excision bill which excised parts of Australia’s territory from the migration zone. That was when we heard the Prime Minister’s ‘ludicrous’ statement. In June of that year I reaffirmed Labor’s commitment to strong border protection but pointed out the futility of protecting our borders by handing them over or surrendering them. That is what we are doing further today.
In December 2002 we moved amendments to the Migration Legislation Amendment Bill to get the children out from behind the razor wire. Subsequently the member for Gellibrand moved a private member’s bill to get the children out before Christmas. All these attempts in parliament failed—all of the attempts that we proposed. Not one member from the government side supported any of those humane and sensible solutions. In policy development in a broader sense, Labor worked through 2002 to get the balance right—the balance between protecting our borders but responding in a human, compassionate way to genuine refugees.
In December 2002 the then shadow minister for immigration, Julia Gillard, and I, as leader, announced a series of measures to protect our borders while treating asylum seekers with decency, respect, compassion and in a timely way. We believed then and we believe now that treating them decently does not come at the expense of national security. We proposed abolishing the so-called Pacific solution—a costly and unsustainable failure. This bill is a complete antithesis of the positive, constructive and humane proposals that Labor has advanced over a number of years. It seeks to legislate away a problem by creating a legal fiction: excising Australia from Australia by pretending that for asylum seekers Australia does not exist—terra incognita indeed. This is a foolish nonsense. It is worse than that though. It is a vindictive and vicious measure to take against unfortunate and desperate people. It does nothing to secure our borders and returns to the government’s old policy of deterrence and punishment based on fear. It is a bill that should be opposed.
Labor will be opposing the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006 for many reasons, many of which have already been articulated by colleagues both on this side and the other side of the House. This bill proposes to amend the Migration Act 1958 to effectively excise the Australian mainland and Tasmania from Australia’s migration zone for people arriving by sea without a visa. The so-called designated unauthorised arrivals may be removed to a declared country outside Australia for processing of any claims that they are owed refugee protection under the refugee convention as amended by the refugees protocol.
The government has indicated at this time that Nauru will be used as the declared country with Manus Island and Christmas Island as contingency locations. Asylum seekers would be prohibited under this law from instigating any legal or appeal proceedings in Australia following any determination of their protection claims. To excise the Australian mainland and Tasmania from Australia’s migration law is an absolutely ludicrous and flawed proposal. We know that, for the purposes of Australian migration law, there are islands off northern Australia which have already been excised so that if asylum seekers arrive on those islands, they do not have access to Australian migration laws.
After those excision laws were passed in this parliament there were only two islands left: Tasmania and the mainland. This legislation excises those two final islands from Australia’s migration law. What this means is that if an asylum seeker reaches our country by boat without a visa then they will be declared as not being on Australian soil for the purpose of the migration laws. They will be shipped off to Nauru, a country which, coincidentally, is not a signatory to the 1951 convention on refugees. What this means is that these asylum seekers who have come in leaky boats, in canoes and by whatever means they have in fleeing from their country of origin will find themselves, on reaching Australia, shipped off to Nauru and processed there under the international conventions.
The background to this is that on 18 January 2006, 43 West Papuan asylum seekers arrived on the Australian mainland. These asylum seekers feared for their lives and the lives of their children. They spent four weeks in canoes in the ocean between West Papua and Australia. They risked their lives coming here. We can only imagine what they feared back in their own country. They put their own children at risk, putting them into canoes to flee what they feared in their own country. Can you imagine, as a parent, putting your child at that kind of risk? As a parent, I cannot imagine what desperation would cause me to do that but there was that desperation for these 43 West Papuans.
The decision was made fairly early this year that 42 of those asylum seekers were found to be refugees and were granted asylum. Just last month the 43rd asylum seeker had his refugee status approved. At this time the Indonesians were unhappy with Australia. They believed that the 43 West Papuans did not face persecution and believed that Australia should send them back to Indonesia, notwithstanding Australian law and Australian migration law processes. The Indonesians withdrew their ambassador from our country. What did our government do? The Prime Minister could have explained our system of migration to the Indonesian President. He could have explained the way that our processes work and explained that the fact that these 43 West Papuans seeking asylum were granted refugee status did not mean that the Australian government agreed with the ideological position that these 43 people have taken in West Papua. The Prime Minister did not do that. He could have gone through those conversations with the President of Indonesia and explained those processes rather than taking a knee-jerk reaction in proposing this legislation that we have before us today.
If we take a step back, last year, as has been explained here before, we had a group of government members who were concerned about the immigration processes in relation to asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat without visas. They were also concerned about the processes of detention in this country and, along with Labor, forced changes to the migration laws, particularly in relation to children. They forced changes so that we would no longer see children arriving in this country by boat placed in detention behind razor wire when they were found to be asylum seekers. They made changes to the length of time people could be kept in detention, which led to the effective abolition of indefinite detention of asylum seekers. We saw the introduction of case managed mental health care, a major recommendation which came out of the Cornelia Rau inquiry as well. We have all seen the examples of how an individual’s mental health suffers while being in detention for an indefinite period. We also now have the fact that the Ombudsman is also the Immigration Ombudsman and that the system can be overseen by that person. This legislation overturns all of those changes.
Australian law only applies in Australia. Australian law does not apply in Nauru. While we saw Australian law changed or softened around the edges last year, that law cannot be applied in Nauru, so we are going to have, for example, children being locked up in detention behind razor wire. We are going to have people’s mental health affected. We are going to have a system where people may be held indefinitely in detention. A point that also needs to be made is that, under this legislation, an asylum seeker arrives in Australia and Australia ships that individual off to Nauru and locks that individual up. If under the UN processes that individual is found to be a refugee, they can still languish in detention in Nauru until a third country decides to take that particular individual so that that person can get on with their life. There is no time frame for that detention, even if the person is found to be a refugee.
Indeed, it was reported in June that the member for Pearce reminded her colleagues at a party room meeting that, at the time that they were discussing this bill, it had been 12 months since their party room had agreed to those changes that I have already listed. A lot of people in this place, on both sides, would agree that children should not be held in detention behind razor wire for any reason at all. There is no reason that anybody could conceivably understand as a good reason for that to happen.
There has been a recently published report called Seeking asylum alone, by Associate Professor Mary Crock of the University of Sydney. It found a significant increase in the number of child asylum seekers who arrived in Australia without a parent or guardian in the last few years. Between 2000 and 2002 there were 197 children travelling to Australia seeking asylum alone, of whom 154 have been found to be refugees and granted asylum. However, as recently as February this year 56 of these young people remained in immigration detention. Adele Horin’s opening paragraph in last Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald illustrates this. She says:
They were smuggled out in the dead of night in the backs of trucks under hay or bags of flour. They were children from Afghanistan whose relatives were desperate to save them from the fate of older brothers or fathers, killed or kidnapped by the Taliban. Most of the children had no say in the decision, did not know where they were going, and had never heard of Australia.
What is it that could possibly drive a young person from the security and comforts of home to undertake a perilous journey through strife-torn countries and across the water in vessels of questionable seaworthiness? If you think about this as a parent, as a human being, it is beyond the imagination of most of us Australians, who really take the comforts we have very much for granted.
The case of Sayed Reza Moussawi, who was interviewed on Radio National’s Law Report on Tuesday of this week, is telling. Reza left Afghanistan unaccompanied as a 14-year-old. His brother was kidnapped and murdered, his bloodied body dumped on the front door of his family home almost three weeks after his abduction. Following his brother’s brutal murder by the Taliban, inquiries were made around Reza’s community as to whether there was another son in the household. Reza recounted what his dad said to him:
My Dad turned his face to me and he started crying. I saw the tears in his eyes, and he said, ‘Reza you should leave Afghanistan because your life is in danger, and I don’t want you to be killed like your brother and in front of us like a kind of a sheep or a horse or goats’.
Reza’s father insisted that he flee. Can you imagine the pain and torture a parent would experience in sending their adored child away, with only hope that they may be given a chance of survival better than the one they have at home? I remind the House that yesterday Australia committed further troops to Afghanistan to keep the Taliban at bay. We obviously recognise that this terrorist organisation is determined to kidnap and murder, and yet the government does not understand that it is not right to treat those victims who have fled this regime and its remnants as animals, leaving them to languish in detention for indefinite periods.
Upon his arrival in Australia after a harrowing journey in which the 14-year-old Reza was exhausted and sick, he was questioned by the authorities. He was petrified. He had fled a country where authority is to be feared with one’s life. Reza did not understand what was happening at first but was granted his freedom after 45 days in a detention centre. Whilst 45 days may not sound like an extended period, we must remember that Reza was still an unaccompanied child. He describes the detention centre as ‘a horrible place for all the immigrants and especially unaccompanied people and for the children’.
In her report, Associate Professor Mary Crock describes where Australia’s treatment of refugees in immigration detention continues to be inadequate and she makes it clear that the passage of this legislation will make things much worse. Unaccompanied children are not provided with any effective support while awaiting the determination of their applications for asylum. Under the measures proposed in this legislation, which is abhorrent to Australia’s obligations under international law, they will not even have the slim protections available to them under Australian law. This legislation proposes to send these asylum seekers offshore to places like Nauru to languish until their applications are processed. Mary Crock’s report found that unaccompanied children detained in Australian immigration centres were identified and placed in separate compounds with families. However, the report made the important point that such niceties were not extended to those children detained in Nauru and that they were treated as adults. It must be noted that, of those unaccompanied children detained within Australia, either they were all granted visas or their status was resolved. But, according to statistics provided to Mary Crock’s report by the International Organisation for Migration, of the 55 unaccompanied young people who arrived in Nauru, 32 were returned to the ravages of Afghanistan. This underscores the point that those seeking asylum who will be transhipped out to Nauru like freight by the Australian government under the measures proposed in this legislation will not have the protections of Australian law.
I would like to get some figures into perspective. Asylum seekers who arrived by boat in 2003-04 were approximately 1.5 per cent of the total number of so-called unauthorised arrivals, the rest of them arriving by aeroplane. The so-called unauthorised boat arrivals in the last four years, as has been indicated by the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs herself, represented only three or four per cent of the total unauthorised arrivals. In recent history, 2001 represented the highest number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat. In that year, 12,355 claims for asylum were lodged by individuals already in Australia, while 4,137 asylum seekers arrived by boat—only one-quarter of the total number of asylum seekers that year. To add to those figures, almost 70 per cent of the 1,547 people intercepted between August and December 2001 and assessed offshore under the Pacific solution turned out to be genuine refugees. Add to that again the total of 130 Afghans on the Tampa who were given immediate sanctuary by New Zealand and the approval rate for refugee status rose to 71.1 per cent.
I congratulate all the speakers in this debate who are opposing this legislation who have brought their personal, humane values and principles to this discussion, including the member for Pearce, the member for Cook, the member for Kooyong and the member for McMillan. These people have stood up against fierce bullying within the Liberal Party and we saw an example of that this morning by the member for O’Connor, who is renowned for his bullying tactics. It has been fierce bullying. These members of parliament have bravely, humanely and with principle stood up against it.
I encourage them to further support their comments in this discussion by voting with Labor, voting against the bill. Do not be bullied by your leader; do not be bullied by the Prime Minister when he says you need to abstain from this vote, not vote against it. To further support the statements that you have made publicly and in this place you need to cross the floor, leave the Liberal-National Party coalition, vote with Labor and oppose this abhorrent legislation that will end in tragedy for many families who come to our country seeking asylum. It must be opposed, it must be defeated and that can happen in the Senate and, hopefully, it will.
Thank you to members opposite for persevering with me this morning. I know that we have a line-up of people who want to speak and I want to thank members opposite for allowing me this opportunity to stand up. As most people in this place would know, I am a pretty simple country boy at heart. I do not profess to be a moral crusader or to have any sort of monopoly on moral or ethical thought, but I find this debate on the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006 interesting, as I do the way it is panning out. People talk about compassion for people who arrive in this country illegally. People obviously have different views on what is the right moral position to take on these matters. I enormously respect the member for Cook, the member for Pearce, the member for Kooyong and the member for McMillan for having the strength of their convictions. They have obviously put a lot of time and effort into pondering this bill and they have been very public about their views on it. I note, reading the front page of today’s Australian, that they are out there telling people exactly what they think about this legislation. I do not share their views on the legislation, but I do admire their strength of conviction and their character in doing that.
But when I go around my electorate, those in it wonder what all this is about and why there is so much opposition to this sort of stuff. We in Darwin are at the leading edge of illegal boat arrivals in Australia—there is no doubt about it. I remember that some years ago, when I first arrived in the Territory, they were a regular occurrence: people lobbing onto our beaches and looking around for taxis to find their way to the nearest police station so that they could hand themselves over to the authorities and involve themselves in long, drawn out legal processes, which inevitably led to their permanent entry into Australia. That has changed in the last 10 years. We do not have people lobbing onto our beaches like we used to and I think the majority of people in my electorate are happy that is the case. Darwin is of course a multicultural city. People who have turned up from other countries and settled in Darwin have done it the hard way. They have done all of the processing correctly and they have come in the front door, and I tend to think that they are a little bit peeved and miffed that there is a debate going on that would allow some relaxation in respect of people who come to this country in unauthorised and illegal manners.
I look at that issue in respect of my electorate and I see that is the view of my constituents. I wonder what the members on the other side are saying to their constituents and how they are selling this line. Does the member for Lilley tell his constituents in Sandgate and Shorncliffe, as they have beaches there, that boat people could be lobbing onto their beaches and wandering around their streets, looking for the authorities, trying to find somewhere to hand themselves in? What does the member for the wonderful multicultural electorate of Watson tell his constituents who went through all of the processes and came here legitimately and are worthwhile and wonderful members of the Australian community? Does he tell them that he is trying to make it easier for people who want to get here illegally? Does he tell them about the examples that we see in England, where they have got 60,000 unauthorised arrivals? They have no idea whom these 60,000 people are, where they have come from, how they intend to make them fit into the country, whether these people are criminals, whether they have criminal backgrounds, whether they are carrying diseases and whether they have gone through various health checks.
Does the member for Brand tell his constituents that there is a possibility that if we continue to further relax immigration laws we will see people coming down between the coast and Garden Island in his electorate and landing at Point Peron, Becher Point and Golden Bay? Does he tell his multicultural constituents, people who have come here legally, that this is what his goal is, or does he—like other members—hide behind the skirt of the member for Pearce? Do these members just stand there and watch the member for Pearce, the member for Cook, the member for Kooyong and the member for McMillan take all the heat in this debate? Do they stand there and laugh at them? The greatest dog whistler that we have in this parliament is the member for Brand. I am sure that what he says to his backbench and his party is something completely different from what he says to the constituents of Brand. Does he actually tell them that he is going to sit there and hide behind the skirt of the member for Pearce and try to water down our immigration laws? I think not.
The point that I want to make this morning is that I find it quite reprehensible that members opposite sit there and hide behind the courage and conviction of the members for Cook, Pearce, Kooyong and McMillan. It is an appalling situation. I will be waiting to see the division on this legislation, because they will all be sitting there whistling and saying, ‘Come on! Come over to our side!’ yet none of them have the courage of their convictions to go out into their electorates and tell them exactly where the Labor Party is coming from on this issue: that they want to water down our immigration laws, that they have absolutely no compassion whatsoever for the millions and millions of refugees around the world who want to come to this country in a legitimate way and that they are all there to support illegal smugglers and illegal immigrants. We do not hear any of that from the other side, and to me that is the sorry part of this whole debate.
I would like to point out to the honourable member who has just resumed his seat that the Australian Labor Party does not support any smuggling of people anywhere in the world and we do not support the weakening of our immigration laws in any way. Forty-three people in a leaky canoe—this is what this legislation is about. It is about 43 people from Papua in a leaky canoe fleeing persecution, landing in Australia and the government getting out its 10-tonne hammer to crack a nut. This legislation is a farce. What sort of invasion is this? How much of a threat are a few terrified people in a canoe?
Time passes and the memory of this event is supposed to have faded since the autumn sittings of parliament. But I doubt it has. Accounts of returned Afghanis are now coming through. How many of them survived their repatriation? It seems they have been sent back to an unstable and dangerous land where the war still rages and the Taliban are beginning to make themselves felt again. The Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006 can mean children in detention again. Indefinite detention will return. Case managed mental health care is over. The Commonwealth Immigration Ombudsman will also lose oversight of asylum seekers when they are sent to a remote foreign island for processing. Earlier this year the government did the right thing in issuing more than 40 protective visas to asylum seekers from Papua. The visas were issued on the grounds that these individuals had a well-founded fear of persecution. When the government made this decision, we on this side congratulated them on it. This latest legislation, if it is passed, will guarantee that the government will never again treat asylum seekers with the decency that they saw earlier this year.
The bill means that if in future people fleeing persecution arrive on Australia’s mainland in a canoe, they will be sent to Nauru to be processed and Australia will act as though it has no obligations. Under this proposal, children will be in detention again. We will see indefinite detention come back. Case managed health care will be stopped. The Commonwealth Immigration Ombudsman will also lose oversight of asylum seekers when they are sent to a remote foreign island for processing. The latest idea to come to light has this government suggesting we accommodate the would-be asylum seekers in prison hulks before they are processed. That would really be offshore! My ancestors were convicts and spent time in those miserable, rat-infested prison hulks on the Thames before they came to this country. Are we going back to those days? What exactly are we trying to achieve by punishing those who believe that Australia is a safe and decent place to aspire to live in?
There is no way of amending this bill to make it just. If one government senator crosses the floor in parliament and votes with Labor in opposing this bill, it can be stopped. This issue should be above politics. If this goes through, it means that anyone who comes to Australia’s shores by boat, ship, canoe, sailboard or bathtub—anything that floats on water—will not be deemed to be in Australia. Suddenly we have no boundaries—if they do not have papers, they have not arrived in Australia. What if someone gives birth and that baby is deposited on Australian soil? What country are they in? It certainly would not be in the country of the mother’s birth; they may have been through several countries since then. It seems they are stateless and forever bound to spend their life in Nauru. They will have to go through the process of seeking assistance and be sent off to Nauru for processing. They are assessed by a single officer and if that person deems them not to be refugees, they can appeal to another officer—once again one person—and then that is it. If there is no sympathy there, they are off to Nauru to try and find another country to take them. This virtually means anyone arriving by sea without papers has little or no chance of gaining asylum in Australia, whether they are eligible or not.
What about the visiting ships? Or luxury yachts? Are they going to be banged up in a prison hulk or asylum camp just for daring to cross the country’s sea boundaries and set foot on Australian soil somewhere? It starts becoming a nonsense when you think of it like that. More potential illegal immigrants come to this country by air than by any other way. They go through the normal processes of visas, false or real, and walk happily off aeroplanes all round the country. Is this the way we want them to turn up instead? It just means we get the rich illegal immigrants, not the poor ones, who really are the asylum seekers fleeing persecution, with only the clothes on their back and a few trinkets of memories.
With this legislation I get the feeling I am living in a country run by the Red Queen out of Alice in Wonderland. You know what she used to say? She said, ‘Off with his head, off with his head’, when someone displeased her. So if whoever it is does not approve of this legislation or disagrees with our leaders, and it annoys the leaders that there is dissent, then their views are dismissed summarily. ‘We cannot possibly be wrong,’ seems to be the sentiment here. The arrogance of this government comes through. Yet there are many on the government side of the House, as well as in the opposition, who are concerned about this legislation. These people do not believe it right to lock up women and children. They believe that we should have a firm but just and fair process for all who seek to come here by whatever means. Whatever happened to the tenet that all are innocent unless proven guilty? It is a sad world in which we are making our own citizens suspicious of all other citizens of other nations. We are all one people under the sun—all part of the human race—and we do not have the right to subject them to this undoubted persecution.
The introduction of this bill appears to demonstrate that our refugee laws are being determined and rewritten by a foreign state. This is not an initiative of the responsible department seeking to improve the quality of our asylum processes. There is no doubt that the proposed law is in direct response to Indonesian anger over the granting of protection visas to the 42 West Papuans. Australian law should not be enacted at the dictate of a country which itself falls significantly short of democratic and human rights standards yet rejects any criticism of its own justice system, particularly its criminal justice system.
The introduction in this way of foreign policy considerations into an asylum determination process giving effect to Australia’s treaty obligations under the refugee convention will render these obligations meaningless in practice. As a member of this parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, I find this extraordinarily stupid. We should be ensuring that we have some consistency in our approach to treaty making and are abiding by those that we have agreed to—otherwise, why do we bother to engage in this process? I do not believe this legislation is needed, nor should we support it. The next thing will be that Tasmania is annexed and becomes that ‘prison offshore island’—not much different from how it was in the 1800s when my ancestors finally arrived there at His Majesty’s pleasure. That experiment did not work. It did little to change the behaviour of many of the inmates; it only deprived them of their liberty and hope, which sent so many of them mad or even to an early grave.
If we want migrants with skills to become part of our nation, we would be better off accepting some of these desperate people who want to learn from us and who want to work and improve life for their families and for communities of which they are a part. We are all capable of learning, and many of those people would be already halfway there with many skills. So why take temporary overseas workers when we can take people who really want to be here and be part of our communities?
This legislation is to appease the Indonesian anger at the acceptance of some of their people who arrived by sea from West Papua. The argument is that they are refugees and they need to be assisted under the international obligations that the world accepts as due practice—for example, they are being persecuted and, if they return to their country, they will be harmed. Those are the grounds to grant them the status of refugees. Fortress Australia was never a way of solving the issue of boat people coming here. The work we do to help other countries improve the conditions of their people and their workers would be far more useful than trying to keep people out of Australia and, in doing so, wasting vast amounts of money. I oppose this legislation and reject the reasoning behind it.
I rise to speak on the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006, coming, if you like, from the perspective of a member who represents a constituency in which all too often constituents find people basically knocking on their back doors. Those people have arrived in this country, unauthorised, through various means, walked up to constituents’ family homes and knocked on their doors in some of the most remote areas of Australia. By that I am talking about the western Cape York communities and in the Torres Strait. We had no idea who they were. They had no background checks and no health checks. It was not so many years ago that we actually had a vessel land at Holloways Beach in Cairns with quite a number of very well-dressed gentlemen from China, I think. They dispersed very quickly—some of them catching cabs and others racing to the railway station to buy tickets to disappear because they had bought a ticket over.
What the member for Lyons said in the introduction to his contribution is actually quite correct. This debate is about 43 people in a leaky boat. The problem we have is that those 43 can very quickly become 430 or 4,300 because, even in this case, there were many lined up to come after if they had seen that these people had got a successful outcome. You can see no better example of that than what happened prior to the Tampa, where we started to see twos, threes, fours and fives turning up in places like the Torres Strait, in the member for Solomon’s electorate in the Northern Territory and those areas. Because of the system that we had, which was far more generous than anything that they could expect through any of the United Nations conventions, those couple of handfuls of people became literally thousands. Thousands arrived here but we have no idea of the number that did not—because, like those 43 I talked about and that the member for Lyons talked about earlier on, many of them were in leaky boats. Many of them were in boats that were totally unseaworthy. I can remember going to Christmas Island about the time when large numbers were arriving, and people in the Christmas Island community were complaining about the numbers of unidentified bodies that were being washed up because their vessels had sunk.
It is very easy to sit back and attack the government and say that we are not compassionate, but I would challenge anybody that has that argument. By creating opportunities and expectations that people are going to get an outcome that they are not entitled to under normal circumstances, it encourages people to get into these leaky boats. Of course, we see many women and children perish as a result of it. I think that any action that we can take that will prevent people from making that decision and trying to bypass the system is something that we need to consider.
I am elected to represent my constituency of Leichhardt, and the Leichhardt constituency extends to within three kilometres of the mainland of Papua New Guinea. My constituents on Saibai Island, Boigu Island, Dauan Island, Badu Island or in Aurukun in the Western Cape communities are no less important and no less significant to me as an elected representative, nor should they be any less important to the Australian government and the Australian people. They are Australian citizens and they have every right to be afforded the protection that we can give them and their families to ensure that they are not exposed to unnecessary risk.
I wonder how many on the other side, who argue that we should be allowing these illegal migrants to come through these channels at will, would change their position if suddenly, in the middle of the night, they woke up, walked out and opened their front door and found a total stranger standing there, knowing that they had no health checks, no migration checks and no background checks. We have had them come through the Torres Strait, where we discovered that they were special security guards for Saddam Hussein. These are the sorts of people who have come through. They have bought their way through and have been knocking on the door of my constituents. We have had people up there with tuberculosis and Japanese encephalitis. There is no screening and it puts a lot of Australians at risk. I believe we have a strong obligation to ensure that we protect, in the first instance, the rights of our Australian citizens. That is why we are elected to this place and I think that has to come first.
For that reason, I am strongly supportive of any sort of measure that is likely to act as a serious deterrent to people coming through in this way. We have many people languishing in refugee camps around the world. We are a very generous taker of refugees—about 14,000, as I recall—including people from Sudan and places such as that. There are horrific stories. I am very proud to have Sudanese men in my community in Cairns. When you talk to them about their difficulties, it brings a tear to your eye. They could never have come and had the opportunities if we as Australians did not have the generosity of spirit that we have.
I do believe we have to discourage people from taking risks by buying an outcome, particularly those coming from Papua New Guinea, through Irian Jaya, given that over the border they could have got asylum in Papua New Guinea. We have to take into consideration those Australians whose lives are impacted by this situation. So I strongly support this legislation. In closing, I would like to say that I respect the opinion of my colleagues the members for Pearce, Kooyong, McMillan and Cook. As a member of the Liberal Party, I think one of the great things is that we are able to have a different opinion and, while I totally disagree with their views, I respect their right to have that opinion and I admire their courage in standing up for their convictions. I support this bill.
I wish to speak in the strongest possible terms in opposition to the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006. This government has a policy that is built on sand. It shifts with the wind, it shifts on the basis of what is in the political interest of the government in terms of its preparedness to promote fear, to promote hatred and to vilify some of the most vulnerable people in the global community. It is no way for this parliament to provide the leadership that we have been entrusted to provide by our respective communities.
Last year, pressure from the Australian public forced the Howard government to make some minor changes to the Migration Act. These changes finally saw an end to the detention of children. The government committed Australia to processing asylum seekers within 90 days and they introduced the oversight of the Commonwealth Ombudsman in cases of prolonged detention. These reforms were a very small step in the right direction. But now we have a case of one step forward, two steps back. Today this parliament is debating a bill that reduces us as a parliament and as a nation.
This bill is based on a number of falsehoods. We just had the member for Leichhardt again introducing fear of diseased people and people who were Saddam Hussein’s bodyguards coming through on this basis. What is this about? It is about 43 people who were found to be genuine asylum seekers, the Indonesian government being upset by this decision and the Australian government saying that they were prepared to put the interests of the Indonesian government before the interests of the Australian people and before Australian sovereignty.
In guillotining this bill, we have seen a government that is prepared to even silence Australian parliamentarians. This bill is wrong in principle and it is wrong in motivation. It cannot be improved by any amendments, so we are not moving any. I pay tribute to my colleague the member for Watson—who is here in the chamber—who has taken a principled stance and who has shown that, in taking a principled stance, we can appeal to people’s better nature. I think that the Australian people are essentially warm and generous people. We have taken people from countries all over the world and, with the exception of our Indigenous people, we must remember that all of us are migrants or the sons and daughters of migrants. Yet we have, because of 43 people, this promotion of fear and a bill that is prepared to excise the entire nation.
You do not protect your borders by giving them up—and that is what this bill does. We need to put this into perspective. As of 28 April, there were 803 people in immigration detention in Australia—18 of them were unauthorised boat arrivals. During the first nine months of 2005 Australia received around 2,400 claims for asylum. This compares with 23,000 claims in Britain and 38,000 in France. The USA received 38,000 claims, but many times that number of people simply arrived in the USA without applying. During the past five years approximately 80,000 migrants and asylum seekers have reached the Italian peninsula by boat. More than 6½ thousand Africans have arrived, by sea, on the Canary Islands archipelago this year alone. The Australian government is removing our borders because of 43 asylum seekers whom it has found to be legitimate. This continues a campaign of fearmongering and vilification of asylum seekers.
The Labor Party supports border protection but does not accept that excising the whole of Australia is an effective means of border protection. You do not deal with boat arrivals by pretending that you do not have sea borders or by pretending that, if you arrive by one particular mode of arrival—boat—you do not arrive in Australia at all. In a statement on 19 April the UNHCR expressed serious concerns about the Australian government’s announced changes to the processing of boat arrivals. It said:
If this were to happen, it would be an unfortunate precedent, being for the first time, to our knowledge, that a country with a fully functioning and credible asylum system, in the absence of anything approximating a mass influx, decides to transfer elsewhere the responsibility to handle claims made actually on the territory of the state.
This bill is a disgraceful shirking of responsibility by Australia and it must be rejected. The Australian Labor Party rejects it. Australia’s 43 Catholic bishops have rejected it. As of 8 August 2006 almost 88,000 Australians had signed Get Up’s online petition rejecting the bill. I reject the bill as being fundamentally abhorrent to everything I believe in and all the reasons why I want to represent my electorate in this great parliament. The government would have us believe that these changes are small and the concessions great. The government would have us believe that the end justifies the means—that is, the temporary appeasement of Indonesia justifies the offshore detention of asylum seekers who have reached Australia by boat. We know that that is not the case. You cannot achieve peace by undermining human rights. If Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is built on such a flimsy foundation it is doomed to fail. I believe our relationship with Indonesia is much stronger than that. Our relationship with Indonesia needs to be built on mutual respect. I would like to quote Justice Michael Kirby:
Every diminution of freedom takes us in the wrong direction. Every act of discrimination by our parliament and governments dishonours our nation.
That is certainly the case with this bill. Our perspective on the 43 who arrived by boat is very different from our perspective on the majority of people who illegally arrive in Australia—who, of course, are on planes. Surely, that dichotomy is entirely inappropriate. As a result of this bill, asylum seekers arriving by boat will be processed by countries such as Nauru or PNG. The Pacific solution was created to deter the secondary movement of asylum seekers who, before they entered Australia, had bypassed other countries in which they could have sought asylum. We need to bear in mind that this whole thing is motivated by the 43 people from West Papua. I wonder what country they could have gone to between West Papua and Australia to seek asylum.
The bill will affect everyone arriving by boat in Australia, even those who have arrived directly from a state in which they face persecution. The government argues that this is the next logical step—that people arriving on mainland Australia should be processed as if they had arrived on one of the currently excised areas. This argument is patently absurd. The government is trying to pretend that, if you seek asylum in Australia and arrive by sea, you never actually arrive in the nation.
This bill also reaffirms the government’s commitment to prolonged detention. We all remember when the Pacific solution was established. We remember the Prime Minister’s grand statements that none of these people would ever set foot on the Australian mainland. We know that a majority of those people, considered under Australian law and UN conventions, were found to be legitimate asylum seekers. We know that, despite the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, many of them are now settled in Australia and making an outstanding contribution—as generations of migrants before them have done. But we know it was all about politics.
Who were most of these people? Most of them were people fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan—an abhorrent, fundamentalist regime that persecuted Christians, women and people who questioned the regime—and the abhorrent regime of Saddam Hussein. These refugees are understandably confused that the Australian government says that these regimes are so abhorrent that we will risk the lives of the brave men and women of the Australian defence forces to combat those regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and yet those people who fought courageously for democratic change and human rights in those countries and were persecuted as a result arrive in freedom-loving Australia only to be locked up and sent away to Nauru for processing. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say that the regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban were so evil and yet we will persecute the victims of those very same regimes.
Through this legislation the government has committed to providing migration assistance for asylum seekers at offshore processing centres, but a number of questions are raised. Who will provide the assistance? Will the migration agents be chosen by the government? If so, how will their independence be ensured? Will this assistance even be guaranteed? Will journalists and lawyers be given access to detainees in the centres? So far only one journalist has been allowed to visit, and that was in April 2005. Access is also a problem for the Ombudsman. Further, this bill gives asylum seekers arriving by boat no access to the Refugee Review Tribunal or to Australian courts for judicial review if their applications are refused. This bill not only physically removes Australia and its borders and excises the whole country; it also excises the values of our country. It excises our law. It excises our upholding of human rights. It excises our dignity.
We know that wrong decisions can often be made on refugee status. Between 1993 and 2006 the Refugee Review Tribunal overturned 7,885 departmental decisions rejecting applications for asylum. This means that more than 7,885 refugees were not returned to countries in which they feared persecution when the department had previously refused them a protection visa. Just this week the Edmund Rice Centre released information concerning the subsequent death of asylum seekers that has resulted from bad decisions by the government in sending back asylum seekers who legitimately feared persecution in their country of origin.
We know that there is a mental health aspect to this. We know about Cornelia Rau and the horrific circumstances of the failure in her case. But these failures have continued. On 22 May this year Dr Fiona Hawker, a very senior and highly respected psychiatrist who had been treating detainees at Baxter, revealed that at least six detainees who had been hospitalised with severe psychiatric conditions had been returned to detention against the specific advice of their treating psychiatrist. As a result they had to be returned to acute psychiatric care.
This undermines the global framework of the 1951 refugee convention. Why was the refugee convention developed by the United Nations in the post-World War II period? It was because of the experience of Jewish citizens fleeing Nazi Germany and the other fascist persecutors in Europe. These Jewish refugees were pushed back offshore in their boats, in many cases sent back to their deaths. The world said: ‘Never again.’ By adopting the refugee convention the world said that humanity is better than that, that we are part of a global community and that we do have a responsibility to stop that occurring again. Of course, Nauru is not a signatory to the 1951 convention, which is one of the reasons why that country has been chosen to house detainees. Papua New Guinea is a signatory, but it has not passed domestic legislation implementing a refugee status determination.
I watched with some amazement Minister Vanstone’s cold dismissal on television earlier this week of the allegations made by the Edmund Rice Centre. It is no wonder that there is not a single church organisation in this nation which is supporting this legislation. I say to Senator Fielding, who will have to consider his vote on this bill, that you are a representative of the Family First Party, not the ‘Australian Families First Party’, and kids being locked up behind barbed wire in what is essentially a prison camp on Nauru is just unacceptable in 2006, regardless of their origin, religion, race, gender or colour. It is simply unacceptable. Article 31 of the UN convention makes it very clear that asylum seekers arriving in a territory directly should not be penalised for their mode of arrival. It is no wonder the UN High Commissioner for Refugees stated on 14 May 2006:
It’s a pretty dramatic solution to the situation ... They’re penalising people arriving in Australia by boat, as opposed to people who arrive by plane. Other countries deal with boat arrivals in much greater numbers than Australia.
I will conclude my comments by saying that this is a test of this parliament and this government. It has been a test of the Australian Labor Party and we have risen to the occasion, and that is why we are rejecting this legislation. But we have to bear in mind how future generations will look at what we are doing here. The kids in the schools in my electorate who saw Ian and Janey Han Hwang taken out of Stanmore Public School have seen, at that level, the persecution that can occur. But to take children offshore and lock them up behind barbed wire is something that should be completely unacceptable to all Australians. We need a government that is prepared to promote hope over fear, and we need a government that is prepared to respect the human rights of all individuals. I urge the House to reject this abhorrent legislation.
I support the view of the shadow minister for immigration, my good friend the honourable member for Watson, that this is a bad and unnecessary piece of legislation. I agree with you absolutely, member for Watson. The Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006 is also a piece of legislation that contradicts the government’s own statements last year after the debacle of the Cornelia Rau and the Vivian Solon affairs and after the Palmer inquiry into the administration of the immigration program that it was going to turn over a new leaf in policy and practice on the treatment of asylum seekers. It violates the agreement that the government came to with its own members, led by the honourable member for Kooyong. As the honourable member for Watson has said, we will be opposing this bill at every stage. I am pleased to see that some of the members opposite—the members for Kooyong, McMillan, Pearce and Cook—agree with us. I commend their adherence to principle on this matter and hope other coalition members and senators will also agree with us.
Before examining the specific provisions of this bill, I would like to reflect on some of the events that brought it about. This bill is a reaction to the Indonesian government’s anger at the decision by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to recommend the granting of protection visas to 43 people from the Indonesian province of Papua, who arrived in Australia by boat in March. The arrival of these people created a difficult situation for Australia. Indonesia is one of our most important regional neighbours and a vital partner in the war against terrorism in our region. Indonesia’s national sentiment is strongly opposed to separatism in Papua, and some Indonesians suspect that Australia is conniving to detach Papua from Indonesia.
Australia is clear that we respect the territorial integrity of Indonesia and that we do not support Papuan separatism. Now that Indonesia is a democracy, in which the rule of law and respect for human rights are being established—I am not saying that they are fully established, but great progress has been made—I do not believe that there is a case for separatism in Papua. In fact, the evidence of last year’s free election in Indonesia is that the majority of people in Papua do not support separatism. It is true that violations of human rights are still taking place in Papua, but I do not believe that the solution to this problem lies in support for an independent Papuan state.
As the recent peace agreement in Aceh shows, the Indonesian government is willing to come to agreements with separatist forces in the outlying regions of Indonesia, and I commend both sides in Aceh on that settlement. I think Australia’s policy should be what it has been for a long time, particularly set out by the member for Griffith: to encourage a similar agreement on a ‘special autonomy’ status for Papua within Indonesia.
Nevertheless, so long as there is separatist agitation and repression in Papua, Australia will have to deal with the problem of small numbers of Papuans seeking to come to this country. The 43 people who came to Australia earlier this year were judged by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to be people genuinely in need of protection, and they were duly granted visas. As the honourable member for Watson has pointed out, Labor did not take a position on whether or not these people were genuine refugees. That was a matter to be determined by the department in following the correct procedures, and that is what happened. If the decision was made by two junior officers, that is a reflection on the competence of ministerial arrangements.
The displeasure of the Indonesian government should have been anticipated. Now that Indonesia is a democracy, Indonesia’s governments have to respond to domestic political pressure just as we do—just as all democratic governments do. President Yudhoyono responded to nationalist anger in Indonesia by withdrawing his ambassador to Canberra. This was unfortunate, but I think the correct response for the Australian government was to continue with patient explanation of Australia’s position—that Australia does not support Papuan separatism, that Australia supports the strengthening of human rights in Indonesia, including Papua, and that Australia supports a negotiated autonomy agreement in Papua along the lines of the one in Aceh.
The government should also have defended its own immigration policies and the integrity of its own immigration department. It should have said that the 43 Papuans were not judged by politicians but by an independent process based on objective criteria. That would not have satisfied the more outspoken anti-Australian elements in Indonesia, some of whom have a broader anti-Western agenda, but it would have eventually satisfied the Indonesian government, which is an essentially moderate government trying to carry through extensive reform programs in its own country and which has no desire to have pointless disputes with its neighbours, particularly neighbours such as Australia, which is so well disposed towards Indonesia.
But what did this government do instead? It reacted in a blind panic, determined to ensure that no further asylum seekers from Papua would be allowed into Australia under any circumstances. In reacting in this way, the government has trashed its own procedures, repudiated its own public servants, undermined the process of reform in the immigration department and broken the undertakings it gave last year to implement the recommendations of the Palmer inquiry, in both letter and spirit. No wonder the government’s own backbenchers, who thought they had the Prime Minister’s word on this, are so angry.
It is notable that this bill did not have its origin in the immigration department. It emerged from a meeting of the cabinet National Security Committee. In other words, it is a bill designed to fix a foreign policy problem, rather than a bill designed to improve our immigration system. Once again, as it did in 2001 at the time of the Tampa episode, this government has dealt with an immigration issue with a quick political fix rather than with a coherent policy. At the time of the Palmer inquiry, after the shameful treatment of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon were revealed, we were promised that immigration decisions would no longer be made on the basis of crude politics. Now we can see how long that promise has lasted—less than a year.
It is hard to see how this legislation has any rationale other than as a quick fix for a political problem. The Papuans who came to Australia in March were not brought here by people smugglers. There is no evidence of an organised attempt to gatecrash our immigration system as there was in the 1990s. In recent years the situation in Afghanistan has become more settled and, as a result of improved cooperation between Australia and Indonesia in cracking down on people-smuggling operations, there have been many fewer attempts to bring people to Australia illegally by boat.
The most deplorable aspect of this bill is that it revives the discredited Pacific solution. All unauthorised arrivals by sea will now be dispatched automatically to Nauru, where they will have to stay while their claims are assessed. Even if they are found to be genuine refugees they will have to stay in Nauru until a third country is found that will accept them. Maybe a third country will be found but no other country is obliged to accept asylum seekers that Australia has refused to accept. The government says that such people will only be dispatched to places were their safety and wellbeing can be protected, but Australian law does not apply in foreign countries. We cannot really guarantee that asylum seekers sent to Nauru or any other place outside Australia will be properly treated.
I am sure those managing the detention centre in Nauru will do their best—although events in the past give us cause to doubt even that—but Nauru is a very small island with a small population and many problems of its own. It has a tropical climate, an acute shortage of water and very limited amenities. With all the goodwill in the world, prolonged detention there cannot be but psychologically harmful, especially for families with children but also for single people separated from families.
Last year the honourable member for Kooyong and his colleagues ended their rebellion on the basis of four promises from the Prime Minister. These were: an end to indefinite detention; an end to detention of children, except as a last resort; more attention to the mental health of detainees; independent oversight of detention arrangements by the Commonwealth Ombudsman. Now we discover that these concessions were phoney concessions because they only applied in Australia, not to the offshore detention centres, which the government is now reviving as receptacles for all the unauthorised arrivals by sea.
Under this bill we once again have de facto indefinite detention, because even genuine refugees will be stuck on Nauru until third countries agree to take them on. Under this bill children can once again be detained. They can be detained on Nauru indefinitely. Under this bill detained people will once again be denied adequate mental health care, which is impossible to provide on Nauru, an environment almost guaranteed to cause mental health problems. Under this bill detainees will be 5,000 kilometres from the Commonwealth Ombudsman, who will need a Nauruan visa even to visit the people he is supposed to be protecting, and who will be operating in a country where Australian law does not apply. This bill is a disgrace to Australia and a disgrace to this government. It is an attempt to fix a foreign policy problem at the expense of vulnerable and friendless people.
I think anyone who knows my record knows that I am in favour of good relations with Indonesia. Indeed, I have written many articles in the Jakarta Post arguing for good relations between our two countries. I am in favour of any reasonable steps to reassure Indonesia that Australia respects Indonesia’s territorial integrity and does not support separatism. But this bill is wrong, unprincipled and unnecessary. The spectacle of this government reneging on its promises and undertakings from last year and returning to the failed policies of the past—and all because of 43 Papuans in a canoe—is a truly shameful one. I hope there are enough coalition senators with a conscience who will share the scruples of the honourable member for Kooyong and his colleagues, and who will defeat this bill in the Senate. They will have the thanks of the Australian people if they do so.
The Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006 excises the Australian mainland and Tasmania from the Australian migration zone for people arriving by boat without a visa. Nauru will be used to detain asylum seekers, and asylum seekers arriving by boat will have no access to legal or appeal proceedings in Australia. I think that is rather horrendous.
Australia’s history in relation to refugees and asylum seekers has been somewhat sullied over the last few years, and I think it is very important to look at who asylum seekers are and why they are seeking asylum on our shores. For a start, asylum seekers are men, women and children who have the same feelings and needs that we do. They are people who have been subjected to the most horrendous conditions: war, and many forms of torture. They face death and persecution on a daily basis. That they hop into leaky boats and come across the seas to Australia shows just how desperate they are. They are not criminals. They are not people who are trying to circumvent systems. They are people with real needs who are suffering. They come to Australia in this way as a last resort.
Unfortunately, the Howard government’s record in this area is something that is less than we, as a nation, can boast about. They have politicised the whole process—something that previous governments had moved away from. There is always political gain to be made in blaming victims, particularly in this area. Previous governments have recognised the need to work together to provide asylum to people who come to our country seeking solace. This government has been very inept in the way that it has addressed the issue of asylum seekers and, as I mentioned, has politicised it at every level.
The government’s 2001 election strategy revolved around the Tampa. The government is on the record as publicising the event where women and children jumped from a boat to save their lives by saying they were thrown overboard. They have vilified asylum seekers and refugees in a way that would make Goebbels blush. To be quite honest, I see asylum seekers and refugees as some of the most vulnerable people in the world. I am very ashamed to have been part of a parliament that has adopted this approach.
We have a fairly interesting history when it comes to refugees. The first people of English descent who came to Australia were refugees from the prison system in the UK. From 1838-39, hundreds of German Lutherans came to Australia. From 1938-39, there were 6,500 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. From 1941-45, we had thousands of Asians fleeing Japanese aggression. From 1945-53, 170,000 European victims of war and oppression came to Australia. In 1975, there were 1,800 East Timorese, following the Indonesian invasion. From 1975-85, there were 95,000 Vietnamese refugees. There was concern in the community at that time, but the approach by the government and opposition of the day was very different from the approach that we have seen under the Howard government. That was a time when people came in boats to Australia and Australia recognised their needs, embraced them and took them into our society. And some of those refugees are some of the most successful people in Australia today. In 1989, we had 20,000 Chinese students who were permitted to stay after the Tiananmen Square massacre. In 1999, we had the 4,000 Kosovo refugees who were given temporary sanctuary in Australia and whom we have spoken about in some detail in the past. I feel that as a nation we have suffered because of the Howard government’s actions. We have been a compassionate nation in the past, but this will be seen as a very dark era in our history. History will judge the Howard government’s actions in this area very poorly.
I will go to the main points of the debate. We should not be appeasing Indonesia. That is exactly what this legislation is about: appeasing Indonesia. We should respect Indonesia. Indonesia is one of the countries that are very important to Australia. It is a country that we need to have a strong relationship with, but that relationship should be equal; it should not be subservient. This legislation, I believe, found its roots in the fact that 43 Papuans arrived in Australia on 18 January this year by sea, and 42 of those were later found to be refugees. In response to the immigration department’s decision to grant visas to the 42 Papuans, the Indonesian government promptly withdrew its ambassador from Australia. Following this, the Australian government released the proposed legislation being debated today.
We are an independent nation. We need to look at these issues on a basis that is in line with our culture, our laws and our history. We should not be adopting the approach that we have in this legislation. It is a very short-term approach that fixes a diplomatic, foreign affairs situation, rather than a long-term approach—one that is considered, will benefit Australia and will raise our standing in the world and our recognition as a nation. Our immigration policy should be based on Australia’s interests and obligations to international law. Our immigration policy should not be based on appeasing Indonesia. Labor will not support a policy motivated by this at the expense of fulfilling our international obligations and humanitarian responsibilities. That is why we are not supporting this legislation. We realise we have international obligations. We realise that there are humanitarian responsibilities. We know who those asylum seekers are and we know the issues that have forced them to flee their countries.
Asylum seekers who arrive by boat should have the right to access the same Australian legal system as asylum seekers who arrive by other means. Just because you come into Australia on a plane does not mean that you should be treated differently to asylum seekers who hop into leaking boats and are so desperate that they are prepared to come to Australia in that way. Asylum seekers on Nauru will not have access to the Australian legal system provided to asylum seekers detained at our airports or to people who come to Australia on another visa, overstay the visa and apply for asylum once they are here. Asylum seekers who arrive by boat should not be punished and discriminated against.
Members on the other side of the chamber have talked about people who come on boats as queuejumpers. I do not accept that in any shape or form. If I was in a situation where I was as desperate as many of these people who are hopping on those leaking boats are, I would do exactly the same. Do not tell me that a person who arrives at an airport and seeks to circumvent the process deserves to be treated any differently. That is a non-argument.
Labor believes all asylum seekers should have the right to access Australian appeal processes, the Refugee Review Tribunal and Australian judicial review. To deny this is to deny basic human rights. Women and children should not be put in detention. The government recognised last year that children should not be kept in detention, and legislated accordingly. At the time, I would have liked the government to have gone a little bit further. There were some issues that I did not think had been addressed fully, surrounding the impact of detention on mental health and the ability of somebody in detention to know that they need to have an independent medical assessment. But, in comparison to this legislation, the previous legislation was a golden piece. A little over 12 months ago, in that legislation, we moved that children be removed from behind barbed wire. Here we are, 14 months later, putting them back again.
Every single piece of information that I have read on the impact that keeping children in detention has on their psychological wellbeing and their development is negative. I do not know how a government can legislate to treat children in this fashion. These children will be crippled by the time they are released from detention. They will not be allowed to develop in the same way as the young people who are in the gallery today. They will not learn in the same way. When and if they are released, they will not be able to be integrated into our society in the way that we would like them to be or that they would like to be. The Howard government has gone back on a promise. This legislation will once again condemn children to live behind barbed wire, to indefinite detention and denial of basic civil liberties. In 2004 a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission inquiry into children in immigration detention centres found that the government’s policy of detaining children:
... failed to protect the mental health of children, failed to provide adequate health care and education and failed to protect unaccompanied children and those with disabilities.
Detention is no place for child. They are not criminals; they have not done anything wrong. The government have acknowledged that in the past but now, to appease Indonesia, they will once again immorally detain children. I will not support policy that denies basic human rights and liberty to children.
This legislation amendment means that asylum seekers will, once again, be sent to languish in limbo, indefinitely, on Nauru. Under the new policy, asylum seekers granted refugee status on Nauru cannot automatically apply for Australian visas and can be resettled in a third country. That is what this government wants. They want them to be settled in a third country. Are we not abrogating our responsibility? If these asylum seekers are identified as genuine refugees, should we not be welcoming them into Australia rather than locking them up behind barbed wire or asking another country to accept them as refugees? The government’s policy has shown that genuine refugees have been left to languish on Nauru in the past, and under this policy it will be much worse.
The new legislation means that case managed mental health care will not be available to asylum seekers on Nauru. There has been case after case of detainees suffering mental health problems, including numerous cases of self-harm and suicide attempts. That is what we, as a nation, will be sanctioning when this legislation is passed. This government needs to rethink the legislation and what it is about. It is not about a political quick fix. It is not about winning the next election. It is not about appeasing Indonesia. Rather, it is about offering asylum to people who are refugees. These are people who are fleeing atrocities.
Revelations about the botched handling by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs in the past have shown the unbelievable detention of Australian citizens such as Cornelia Rau. The deportation of Vivian Solon, an Australian citizen, proves that it is necessary for the Commonwealth Ombudsman to oversee asylum seekers on Nauru. This legislation will deny this. This is bad policy designed to appease Indonesians at the expense of human rights for asylum seekers who have arrived on our shores. The Pacific solution is an illogical policy. It is a policy to which we are returning. It is a policy that has cost taxpayers more than $240 million since its implementation in 2001. This money would be better spent on services to resettle these people in our community after initial processing on the mainland.
The government is abandoning our international obligation to the 1951 refugee convention and our responsibility to offer protection and humanity to asylum seekers seeking our protection. It is a mean-spirited, poll driven government that lacks moral integrity and the backbone to be independent and stand up for Australia. It is a government that kowtows to Indonesia rather than approaching Indonesia as an equal partner and negotiating so that both nations are held in respect. The government’s latest initiative to holding people in detention when they enter Australia reverts back to the treatment of the first European Australians.
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.
That this bill be now read a second time.