Senate debates

Thursday, 28 June 2012


Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012; Second Reading

12:05 pm

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise in support of the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. I indicate that I have changed my mind on this issue. I have done what Senator Brandis has asked me to do, which is to have a look at these issues dispassionately. I certainly have looked at it and in my view this is the best way forward in the short term.

I want to try to put my change of mind into some context. The UNHCR 2011 report on refugees shows that there were 4.3 million people newly displaced around the world. Worldwide there are 42.5 million people who are either refugees or are internally displaced. There are almost a million in the process of actively seeking asylum. Afghanistan is the biggest producer of refugees, with 2.7 million—and surely we have a responsibility in terms of the situation in Afghanistan—Iraq has 1.4 million, Somalia has 1.1 million, Sudan has half a million and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has 491,000. The countries hosting the largest number of refugees were Pakistan, with 1.7 million, the Republic of Iran, with 886,500 and the Syrian Arab Republic, with 775,400. The situation in those countries is dire. You certainly would not want to be a refugee in any of those countries. In Australia, the number of refugees and asylum seekers has remained relatively stable and small by global standards, with 23,434 refugees and 5,242 asylum seekers hosted at the end of 2011. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Hazara population is still subject to genocide.

I take the view that, with 3.7 million refugees in the Asia-Pacific area, we need to deal with this both in the short and the long term. Some of these refugees are looking for economic betterment. Some of them are looking for family reunification. Some of them are fleeing war and conflict. Some of them are fleeing religious, racial or sexual persecution. Some of them are fleeing natural disasters, climate change and food insecurity. This is not a situation that will change quickly. This is a situation that government, regardless of their political background, will face in this region for years to come.

I abhor the loss of life at sea. Children are losing their fathers and mothers. Parents are losing their children. People are losing siblings. These are human and personal tragedies of the highest order. I am troubled by the Nauru approach. I am troubled by the Malaysian approach. I have argued continually over many years my opposition to the Pacific solution. I have done that publicly and I have done that within the Labor Party. I do not see, regardless of the arguments that the coalition senators have put forward here, how Nauru could ever be contemplated as some kind of success. But as Keynes and the Nobel Prize winning economist Samuelson said, when the circumstances change we change our minds. And they asked this question: what would you do? I have changed my mind.

I met with 41 backbenchers yesterday. It was clear that those 41 backbenchers had no silver bullet to the problem that we are facing. But they all had one view and that was that we had to put in place a humanitarian approach. What we are doing today is dealing with hard choices. There are no easy solutions. The advice to the government has been that Nauru will not work and that it would not be a disincentive. You have to remember that when the Nauru processing centre was in place, on 19 October 2001 we had SIEVX, a ship that went down causing 353 people to lose their lives. This was under the Pacific Solution.

We are now being told that the boats should be turned around and we have been asked by the Leader of the Opposition to examine our consciences. I have examined my conscience and my conscience says that we should do whatever we can to stop deaths at sea. There are two issues that are coming through in the contributions being made here today. One is the hypocrisy of the coalition on the issue of humanity. The other issue that is coming through loud and clear is the policy purity of the Greens. Gough Whitlam said only the impotent are pure. The Greens are standing flatfooted but pure. You should think about the brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and friends who are dying on the oceans to the north of Australia. These are human beings. They are not statistics; they are not simply refugees; they are not simply asylum seekers. These are human beings who, for one reason or another, want to make a better life for themselves within this great country.

The opposition hypocrisy is huge. Many of the speakers who are listed to speak here today or who have already spoken were silent on the cruelty of the Pacific solution—absolutely silent. Where were Senator Abetz and Senator Brandis when genuine refugees, including 12-year-old, 14-year-old and 15-year-old kids, were sewing their lips together as a desperate cry for help under the Pacific solution? Where were the coalition voices in support of humanitarianism? They were nowhere to be heard. Where was the action from the coalition on humanitarian issues? It was nowhere to be seen. The hypocrisy of the coalition is huge. Where was the member for North Sydney, Joe Hockey, during the child overboard fiasco? He was nowhere to be seen. Where were the coalition voices on that issue? They were nowhere to be heard. Where was the Leader of the Opposition when refugees were being vilified and ostracised in the Australian press day in and day out? He was nowhere to be seen? Base politics were driving the Pacific solution and the coalition's position on refugees. So I just find it a bit tough, a bit hard to take, when the coalition stand up in here and talk about humanitarian approaches to refugees, when for almost a decade their approach was the antithesis of a humanitarian approach to refugees.

I say to Senator Abetz, in response to his statement that there was a great, compassionate position adopted by Mr Ruddock, the then minister: in 2001 Mr Ruddock was calling for children to be removed from their parents in these concentration camps that the coalition had set up at Baxter and elsewhere in Australia. Take the children from their parents—that was the refrain from the coalition. What is humane about that? Absolutely nothing. Then there was a young boy in Villawood. When Mr Ruddock was asked about that young boy and his plight in Villawood, Mr Ruddock could not bring himself to describe this child as a boy, or a human being; he described the child as 'it'. That was the humanitarian approach from the coalition. So I will not be lectured by the coalition on humanitarian policies or successful policies. What is successful about describing a young child as 'it'? What is successful about taking children from parents? What is successful about putting families behind barbed wire for year after year, until they are psychologically destroyed? The hypocrisy from the coalition knows no bounds. And the impotence from the Greens almost rivals that. I say you should not have been silent on the cruelty of the Pacific solution.

I want to come to this Malaysian arrangement. As I have said, I don't like it. I have probably fought longer on these issues than many in this parliament. It has been an issue that I, as a union delegate, as a union official and as a senior union official in this country have argued on for years. But I just do not want to see any more innocent people being killed on the high seas. I do not want people losing their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their children. It is just not acceptable. The 41 backbenchers yesterday were crying out for a compromise on this issue. We were crying out for something to be done. This is not a perfect proposition that is before the parliament—in fact, it is far from perfect. But I think, for a 12-month period, as is outlined in this bill, we should give it a go—because the Malaysian approach is an approach that the UNHCR have had a look at, that the UNHCR were involved in, that the UNHCR see as a step forward to what the real solution in this region is: a proper regional approach to dealing with refugees and displaced persons.

That is the situation the UNHCR see. They and others argue that Malaysia do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of refugees. They do far more heavy lifting than us—there are about 1.2 million displaced people, I think, in Malaysia. But what the UNHCR say is that the implementation of the Malaysian guidelines contain important protections and safeguards. Those include respect for the principle of non-refoulement. Non-refoulement is simply not sending people back to where they could be tried and killed or subjected to the death penalty. They say the principle of family unity and the best interests of the child are in this agreement; that humane reception conditions, including protections against arbitrary detention are there; that the lawful status to remain in Malaysia until a durable solution is found is there; and the ability to receive education, access to health care and a right to employment are there. There will be no employment on Nauru. They will be there, with all that that barren rock provides. What is it about Nauru that is better than Malaysia? Absolutely nothing. So the UNHCR see some hope that this could lead to a more lasting solution.

I want to go back to the coalition and their hypocrisy, and quote what the Secretary-General of Amnesty International, Irene Khan, said in 2002. She said this about the coalition policy that they are arguing was so successful. She said:

It is obvious that the prolonged periods of detention, characterised by frustration and insecurity, are doing further damage to individuals who have fled grave human rights abuses. The detention policy has failed as a deterrent and succeeded only as a punishment. How much longer will children and their families be punished for seeking safety from persecution?

That was the Pacific solution. That is what the coalition is arguing we should adopt again. I will not support that, and the government will not support that. It is not what we should be doing. We should be looking at a longer-term proposition, and there are two areas that we should be looking at. One is the UNHCR's 10-point plan of action on refugee protection and mixed migration, which can guide countries in relation to refugees. The other is the core principles adopted by the fourth Bali regional ministerial conference in Indonesia. The UNHCR's plan of action boiled down to this: that the people who need protection receive it, that those who do not are assisted to return home and that all people are treated with dignity while appropriate solutions are found. That is something the Pacific solution never, ever contemplated.

The statement from the fourth Bali regional conference said that irregular movements facilitated by people smugglers should be eliminated. That is what this bill is seeking to do. It said that asylum seekers should have access to consistent assessment processes. That is what this bill is seeking to do. It said that persons found to be refugees under those assessments should be provided with a durable solution. This is the first step to a durable solution for refugees and asylum seekers. The statement also said that people found not to be in need of protection should be returned and that people-smuggling enterprises should be targeted through border security arrangements, law enforcement activities and disincentives to human trafficking and smuggling.

My view—and my view has changed—is that this is the best approach we can adopt. It is a compromise position that I think the Australian public is crying out for. It is a short-term position to allow some of the longer-term Bali and UNHCR processes to be put in place—something I would be far more comfortable about. As a union official I had to accept many short-term decisions and accommodations for my membership so that they could get better conditions in the longer term. This is a similar situation. Negotiators find themselves in this position constantly. We should not go back to a position where we try to turn boats around and put our Navy and asylum seekers in jeopardy. We should not go back to the Pacific solution, where young kids are sewing their lips up and hypocrisy abounds in the coalition. I call on the Greens to reconsider their position and to not be impotent, to actually make a contribution to this solution and help refugees. (Time expired)


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