Senate debates

Wednesday, 15 August 2012


Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012; Second Reading

5:59 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today to oppose the legislation before the Senate. I do so saying that I think it is a tragedy in Australian public life that we have got to the point where the government and the coalition are trying to outdo each other on the level of cruelty and punishment they are prepared to inflict on refugees who are seeking asylum in our country.

The fact of the matter is everybody talks about a problem. The problem will not be fixed. What is the problem? The problem that is being cited is that people are losing their lives at sea on leaky boats and we have to stop that. I could not agree more, and I will come to that in a moment, but actually that is the fig leaf. The problem that the Houston panel refers to and that is spoken about in here by the government and the coalition is deterrence. Both of the major parties in Australia want to deter asylum seekers—refugees—from coming to live in our country. The whole message is: 'We do not want you in our country. We want to deter you from coming and we want to punish you so that we give the message out there clearly to the rest of you that we do not want you in our country and we will punish you if you try to come here. What we're going to try to do is punish you by taking you to Nauru, by taking you to Manus Island, by taking you to Malaysia, by leaving you in indefinite detention. That is the punishment so the message goes out to you and your families that we do not want you here. Don't even try to come; because, if you do try to come, that's what we're going to do to you.'

Why are we putting in place this notional view of deterrence when we are talking about people who are genuine refugees? No amount of punishment that we give people is going to be worse than the situation from which they have run. Women are running from Afghanistan because of the treatment that they are getting in that country. Recently there was the killing—the murder—of a woman in Afghanistan accused of adultery. She was murdered. A video about it went out around the world, and we had people in Australia from both the government and the coalition saying: 'This is terrible, this is terrible. This is why we need to be in Afghanistan.' Yes, it is terrible. But what if that woman's friends—what if people watching—decided they had to leave Afghanistan because it could be them next? We are saying: 'Yes, you should leave Afghanistan; it is a terrible situation. But we don't want you here. Go somewhere else. Land yourself up in a camp in Malaysia. Land yourself up in a camp in Indonesia and stay there. If you attempt to come here, we will send you into indefinite detention on Nauru, on Manus Island, in Malaysia or wherever else. We'll punish you. It's not enough you've been punished once; we have to punish you again.'

What is the crime that they have to be punished for? Their crime is that they have run away. They have been persecuted and have run away, and we say, 'No, we don't want you here.' We then go into this ridiculous language of advantage and disadvantage. 'Queue jumpers'—that is an invention of the Howard government. It assumes there is some sort of orderly queue of people running away from persecution. There is not. They are in all kinds of situations in Malaysia and Indonesia. But with this idea of advantage what people fail to realise is that Australia refuses to give visas to people from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka because we already think they are too great a risk that they might want to come to our country. They are so great a risk we will not give them a visa. Without a visa they cannot travel; they cannot come through normal channels.

Let us face it: 13,750 people can come to Australia on humanitarian refugee status now. We take over 200,000 people, but not these ones. If you can get a visa, you can fly in and seek asylum when you get here, and you can get that from many other countries—but not from these countries, because we deem them to be such a risk. So they get to these camps and have no hope of getting resettlement. They get to the point where they think the only hope they have is to get on a boat and hope they can get to Australia, hope they can be assessed as refugees—many of them are already assessed as refugees in Indonesia. And we say, 'No, our priority is to deter you.'

When the Greens stand up and say, 'If you are genuinely concerned about saving lives at sea, what you need to do is give people safe pathways to Australia once they are assessed as a refugee so they don't have to get on a boat', what is wrong with that?' The answer is, 'Open borders; we couldn't possibly risk it.' Nobody is talking about open borders. What we are talking about is lifting the humanitarian intake to recognise that, when there are periods of war and persecution around the world, there is an increase in the number of people seeking asylum. Australia, the land of the fair go, the generous country, takes less than two per cent of the world's refugees, and yet we feel like we have to deter them because suddenly we are going to be overcome by this two per cent of the world's refugees.

Let me go to the issue of people dying at sea. I will not have it that Senator Abetz stands there and says there is any vindication of his policies, because there is no vindication of his policies. There is no vindication of his general policy at all. I go particularly to this claim that former Prime Minister Howard stopped the boats. Firstly, what he did was excise territory so that when boats turned up they were not counted because they were not turning up in Australia. That is why there was a change in the figures: it is how they counted them. Secondly, they brought in temporary protection visas because they said, 'If we take away the rights of asylum seekers to apply to bring their families here, that'll deter them, that'll teach them, that'll punish them.' It led to the wives and children getting on the boats because they had no other way of joining their husbands, their brothers, their fathers in Australia. They died on the SIEVX. Three hundred and fifty-three people died because of temporary protection visas. That is forever on the conscience of Prime Minister Howard, Senator Sinodinos and everyone else who worked in that office at that time and exempted themselves from telling the truth or even turning up to the Senate inquiries.

To this day we have not had a royal commission into what happened with the SIEVX. How is it that that many people drowned and disappeared? Who knew? Where were our coastal surveillance people? Why did we leave it? Which vessels turned up there and shone their searchlights onto people in the water and then sailed away? Labor made it part of their policy, in 2004, to have a royal commission into this. That was dropped by Prime Minister Rudd. I want a royal commission into the SIEVX, and I would like that extended to the loss of the other boats that have come in the intervening years because there is a terrible tension between the policy of saying, 'We want to deter people, therefore we don't want to make it look as if we're a search and rescue service'—as the coalition would have said. No, we want to leave people to the very last minute; and so the tension is between deterrence on the one hand and Australia's obligation to save lives at sea on the other. The reason we have so many people suffering post-traumatic distress in the Navy and the rescue services is they know that people are in trouble but they are not being sent immediately, because we have to balance deterrence with rescuing people.

A boat went down recently with the terrible loss of life of 90 people. We knew they were in trouble on Tuesday afternoon but we did not tell the Indonesians until Thursday afternoon that we were going into their search and rescue zone to rescue those people because they were already in the water by then and 90 of them drowned. I want to know who made the decision not to go on Tuesday afternoon. I want to know who made the decision not to say to the Indonesians, 'We are going into the search and rescue zone,' because we Australians know the Indonesians do not have the physical capacity with boats to do so. The only boat they have cannot go out in swells of more than four metres. We know they do not have the boats. We know they do not have the electronic surveillance to know where people are. We do. We know where those boats are. We knew the Indonesians could not rescue them and yet we did not go. I want to know why.

Let us get this on the record: if you want to save lives at sea it is possible. One of the good things that has happened, as I have been calling for codification on saving lives at sea, is that the Prime Minister moved, over the winter break, to help the Indonesians develop more capacity for rescue. One of the excellent things that has come out of the Houston report is a recommendation that we codify our responsibilities under Saving Lives At Sea so that everybody in the chain of command—from intelligence identifying where a boat is through to the people on the ground rescuing them—has a consistent set of instructions and knows exactly what they are supposed to do. Let us have that on the record and let us see when we start getting calls for some decent and proper recommendations for the people who are doing everything in their power to save lives. This is not a criticism of the people who are out there trying to do the rescues. All of those people are trying to do the right thing and their frustration is that they know that, in many cases, they could have gone earlier and did not. That is not their fault.

I go to the actual policy of what is being recommended—sending vulnerable people, children, offshore. This legislation says that the minister relinquishes his guardianship responsibilities—his or her, it may be a male minister—so children coming on these boats can be put into detention indefinitely. Why do we think that is fair? Why do we think that is humane? Why do want to punish children? Because we want to send a message to their families that we do not want them here?

They are not temporary protection visas but they might as well be. The government wants to change the act so that the males who come cannot seek family reunion. That is exactly the logic that led before to 353 people, mainly women and children, drowning—and we are doing it again even though we know that is the result. It will lead to people knowing the only way they have any chance of coming to Australia is to get on a boat because they are not going to be allowed to apply through the special humanitarian opportunities and will be put at the back of the queue in terms of the assessment of refugee status and family reunion status. It will be years and years—decades—before it happens and that is why they have no choice. That is what is going on here.

One thing I think the Australian community has not realised is that there has been all this talk about protecting their rights: 'Yes, we will send them to Nauru; yes, we'll send them to Manus Island; yes, we'll send them to Malaysia—but don't worry, we'll protect their rights.' Why are we having to debate this and legislate? The rights already exist in the legislation at section 198A. Those rights are there. The reason we are doing this is the High Court said that we cannot guarantee people's human rights in these other places because they are not enshrined in law in Malaysia. We cannot guarantee to a person in a camp in Malaysia that they will be treated with decency and have their human rights respected. We know that people have been beaten and sexually assaulted, that they cannot work or send their children to school. Their rights are not enshrined—but we are required by law to do that and that is why the High Court said that the Gillard government's attempt to put people in Malaysia was against the law. The law codifies our obligations under the human rights convention and the refugee convention.

This parliament is now saying, 'Well, we'll get around the High Court by removing human rights protections from Australia's law.' What this clearly says is there is nothing legally binding about what will happen in relation to this. There might be people of good intent, and so on, but there is nothing legally binding in place. So people's rights cannot be protected under what is being proposed here.

The other issue with it is this decision to excise the whole of the Australian mainland from the Migration Act so that everyone can be punished equally. Instead, the decent thing to have done would have been to repeal the excision of Christmas Island and the rest of the territory that was excised. We should have just got rid of the excision and had the whole of Australia operating under our migration law and our human rights obligations. I feel ashamed that our parliament is stripping human rights out of the migration law. We heard today of the Labor Party's proud tradition in being part of drafting the global human rights convention and I thought how ironic it is that we have a new member of parliament for the Labor Party standing up and saying how proud they are of being part of a tradition that drafted human rights on the very day that the Labor Party is moving to strip out of law human rights that people fought so hard to get a global treaty to implement. And the coalition is standing up there, beating its chest and saying, 'Aren't we marvellous, because we have now got Labor to agree with us and we are going to the bottom of a very rotten barrel.'

In terms of other things that this set of propositions does, there is the issue of permanent, indefinite detention. It is hard to believe in a country where we think we respect the rule of law that we could be saying to people, 'We are going to send you away and you are stuck there indefinitely,' when we know that the last time this happened people ended up with quite severe mental illness as a result of the experience. Patrick McGorry said recently that after six to 12 months people have psychological disturbance from being in detention, yet we are prepared to proactively do that to people. We are saying, 'You might be okay now, but we're going to lock you up and there is a high probability you're going to end up with a mental illness and psychiatric disturbance because of this, and we don't care; that is part of your punishment.' And then what happened, of course, was when it was all found to be so appalling, the taxpayers of Australia have had to pay out compensation for the way people were treated in the Nauru detention centre—and we are doing it again! If we do not learn the lessons of history we are condemned to repeat them, and this Senate is now repeating the lesson of history, which is that Australia's global reputation is now trashed, as it was during the Howard government years.

People around the world are going to be looking at us and saying that Australia wants to be on the United Nations Security Council, it wants to get on a global security council and it has just shown that it has zero respect for the United Nations, for the treaties of the United Nations, particularly when it comes to human rights and refugees, which are central issues pertaining to security and how you respond to security crises around the world. I would be surprised if there were any other civilised countries in the world—and by that I mean countries that respect human rights—that would think it was appropriate to vote for Australia to go onto the Security Council. We have embarrassed ourselves. We have an opportunity in this century—it is the first time ever that Australia has been well located in a global context to take a leadership role. We are an Asian nation. We have so much to offer in terms of leadership, democracy, human rights, decency, a fair go, multiculturalism—all those things we have to offer. We had an opportunity to engage in the region in a leadership role in a regional framework that respects human rights, that underpins the regional framework with human rights. We could have then said, having increased our own intake, 'We will now ask other countries to assist us to take people,' but we have not.

The government ought to be ashamed. The Greens are standing here pleading with the Senate to think about our nation. What sort of country do we want to live in and how can we have self-respect as Australians if we harden our hearts when people ask us for help?


julie Danser
Posted on 17 Aug 2012 8:40 am (Report this comment)

I am confused by your use of the words "asylum seeker" and "refugee". From my understanding an asylum seeker is seeking asylum from real dangerous threat to their lives. Refugee, however, is someone whom applies for a visa through a government process.

I am a greens member and supporter, however on this issue I feel you should have accepted the deal in June that meant processing asylum seekers in Nauru. It may not have been perfect but this situation is a strongly divided one here in Australia and I believe that this for the moment would have been a safer option for these people. As this debate continues more innocent lives are at risk. The political stand is childish and placing immense pressure on the government for a quick solution and we know anything decided when pressured will be a band aid. I believe sometimes you have to allow something else to happen for more good to evolve.

I do not understand your political jargon, I am just a heart felt person who would like to see real change in the way we do politics, I had faith the Greens were the party that had this vision. All I see now is a battle of wills.

I say to Tony Abbott and Julia, go and live in the conditions these people live in for a couple of weeks and leave your pampered ego's behind and then you can make a humanitarian decision as to what the best course of action is.

I don't see why we cannot set up a community on one of the islands for these people, not a detention centre but a middle ground. Surely they would be happy to be held if the conditions were civil. I do realise this is a difficult situation and a lot of Australians are fearful and this makes for irrational thinking and anger. The government is stuck between an island and a bad place.

William McCann
Posted on 26 Nov 2012 5:49 pm (Report this comment)

When Nauru was closed down some years ago it was estimated that the cost per asylum seeker had been in excess of $100,000 annually per person incarcerated. One can reasonably consider that figure would have risen to close to $150,000 per person, today. One shudders to think of the cost of rebuilding the centre to an acceptable standard. A reasonable motel on the mainland would cost less than $50,000 annually per person and with reasonable welfare per adult $15,000, and $25,000 per couple, (husband and wife) a much more economically sound proposition, coupled with a more humane approach, we could return to the company of the more civilized countries of the world. Perhaps, help us achieve a win/win?