House debates

Monday, 18 February 2019


Refugee Protection Bill 2019; Second Reading

10:15 am

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Denison, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Last week in this place humanity triumphed over cruelty and illegality when late Tuesday afternoon the so-called 'medevac' bill passed this place with the support of the opposition and six out of seven crossbenchers. It was truly an uplifting moment. It was a flash of humanity in this place and in this country, and it was parliament working as it should—people coming together, talking, coming up with compromises, voting together, representing our community and getting something done. It was a tremendous achievement, and we should celebrate it.

But we should, at the same time, remember that the fundamental problem goes unaddressed. The fundamental problem is that this country has a deeply unethical and illegal response to asylum seekers. Yes, we now have a legislated arrangement which will formalise, speed-up and make more reliable the evacuation of sick asylum seekers and refugees from our offshore processing camps, and, yes, we hopefully will now have less reliance on court action to look after sick people, but at the end of the day, this country still has boat tow backs, still has mandatory detention and still has offshore processing. In other words, this country still has a framework to respond to asylum seekers which is deeply unethical and illegal.

It's unethical because it is wrong to lock people up. It is wrong to not capitalise on our good fortune and our wealth. It's wrong to refuse to simply do what we should do, and that is that when someone comes to us claiming to be fleeing for their life, we should be giving them protection, hearing their claims and giving them permanent refuge in our big, lucky and rich country if their claims are accurate. Sure, send them back if their claims are inaccurate, but let's not forget that the vast majority of asylum seekers who have come to Australia or tried to make it to Australia have been found to be genuine refugees.

In addition to the issue of the morality of this and whether or not our country has integrity—and it doesn't, frankly, when it comes to our current response to asylum seekers—there's also the issue of our obligations under international law. We signed up to any number of international agreements, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Rome Statute, where in good faith previous governments agreed that we should treat asylum seekers humanly.

So we still have this underlying problem, and that brings me to the bill currently before the parliament, the Refugee Protection Bill 2019. This bill before us is actually the same as the Refugee Protection Bill 2018, which I tabled in June last year. In essence, this bill today provides for the establishment of the Asia-Pacific Asylum Seeker Solution, or APASS. This would be a regional framework for responding to asylum seekers, initiated by the Australian government, in partnership with Asia-Pacific countries.

In particular, the bill before us today enables the establishment of APASS centres where asylum seekers can go to be screened, registered and have their immediate humanitarian needs met. Such APASS centres would be strategically located right across the Asia-Pacific region, especially in countries of first asylum and transit countries. This would include at least one centre in Australia due to the possibility of some asylum seekers travelling directly from their source country to Australia, for example by boat from Sri Lanka.

Upon registration at an APASS centre, asylum seekers will be required to select three preferred host countries. If Australia is selected, and other specified criteria are met, then the applicant will become an Australian APASS applicant. Australia will take a specified quota of these applicants each year who will be considered for permanent visas in Australia based on their refugee status.

An APASS applicant may remain at the APASS centre where the APASS applicant was registered or he or she could be transferred to another APASS centre—whatever's appropriate. A transfer arrangement for an APASS applicant must prioritise the applicant's immediate needs, the principle of family unity, international human rights law and responsibility sharing between APASS member states as a priority.

Moreover, each APASS applicant will be assigned an APASS case officer who will be legally responsible for the processing conditions of the applicant, including access to free independent legal advice, accommodation and financial support; as well as working with authorities to ensure an applicant's visa is processed within a statutory time frame. This bill makes it clear that each step of this process has restricted time frames, appropriate oversight and review.

In other words, the bill before the House this morning provides for a sustainable, humane and legal response to the protection and processing of asylum seekers and refugees in the Asia-Pacific region. It's genuinely a regional solution, and one that's been developed in accordance with international human rights law and UNHCR guidelines.

This bill today will not result in more people arriving by boat and will not send a message to people smugglers. Rather, this regional solution and APASS centres will reduce the need for people to travel to Australia by sea because registration at an APASS centre before Australia would be preferable to engaging the service of people smugglers. There would be no cost, the process is equitable and transparent, and each step of the process has specific time frames and appropriate oversight and review. In essence, we have a regional processing solution that does away with mandatory detention, does away with offshore processing, does away with tow-backs and, ultimately, ensures that we become a leader in the region in coming up with a genuinely ethical and legal response to asylum seekers.

I call on the government and the alternative government, and my crossbench colleagues, to support this. When I tabled this last year, regrettably, no party came to support me. I am heartened that since then Senator Nick McKim, who has the shadow responsibility in the Greens, has spoken with me at some length and indicated that the Greens are now supportive of this bill in principle. But, at the end of the day, the major parties have to shift—and good on the Labor Party for driving what happened last Tuesday. But they need to get behind something bigger and better, such as this bill.

I now invite my colleague, the member for Wentworth, to use the remaining few minutes of my time.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

10:22 am

Photo of Kerryn PhelpsKerryn Phelps (Wentworth, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion. Last week, the parliament passed the Migration Amendment (Urgent Medical Treatment) Bill 2018. The bill provides a medical solution to a medical problem, whereby sick asylum seekers can be transferred to Australia for medical treatment when they cannot be successfully treated on Manus Island or Nauru. The bill provides a humanitarian approach to enable proper medical treatment to people in Australia's care. It applies only to the just over 1,000 people currently on Manus Island and Nauru. As PM Malcolm Turnbull told the United States President, Donald Trump, in 2017, 'We know exactly who they are; these people have been there since 2013.'

Operation Sovereign Borders has worked to deter boats from leaving to make the dangerous journey to Australia, but the job is only half done. It's very clear that the global refugee system is in crisis. The effectiveness of the refugee convention is dependent on international solidarity, and credible and principled accountability for the protection of those seeking asylum. Around the world, countries are turning their backs on the refugee convention and neglecting their voluntarily assumed legal responsibilities.

Under the current system, sole responsibility for providing protection and assistance to refugees lies with the government of whatever country they happen to be in. This creates incentives for asylum seekers to attempt longer and riskier journeys to reach wealthier destinations where they can maximise their social outcomes. It also incentivises those nations to put up barriers, preventing asylum seekers from accessing their territories. Countries like Australia continue to pay lip-service to their obligations, but are implementing measures aimed at deterring and blocking asylum seekers from accessing those protections. We need to remove such incentives and prevent deaths at sea.

During my campaign for the seat of Wentworth I focused on two priority areas with regard to those seeking asylum. I wanted to get all kids off Nauru and to find a solution for those on Nauru and Manus who are in desperate need of proper medical care. This was achieved with the passage of the medevac bill in the House of Representatives last Tuesday.

The other campaign promise was to build capacity in the region. This is why I'm supporting the member for Denison's bill. Australia needs to work more constructively with our neighbours to enhance refugee protection in the region. In the short term this will mean Australia working cooperatively with governments in our region to assist them in affording basic rights and protections for our refugees. By improving conditions we can take away the incentive or need for onward travel to Australia. In the longer term we can work towards some form of centralised regional processing system. It would require numerous states across our region to buy in and offer resettlement places and to afford protection to both asylum seekers awaiting processing and those found to be refugees. (Time expired)

Debate adjourned.