Senate debates

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


Manus Island

10:09 am

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak against the approval of this designation that has been forwarded in such haste by the government. The concerns that the Australian Greens have are concerns that are shared by many in the Australian community. They are very similar to the concerns that we had last time we saw a designation put forward in this place, and that was of course in relation to Nauru.

It seems that every day that goes by this government, together with the opposition, are colluding, snuggling up, to share their obsession with deterrence. Yet despite Nauru already been open, despite the fact that we have sent people there and had a big fanfare about the poor souls that we have dumped on Nauru, it has not stopped anybody coming here by boat. The deterrence factor has already failed. It has been proven to fail. The Australian Greens said it would never work and we have been proven right. The fact is that the reason a deterrence policy will not save lives is because the only option is to give people a safer alternative and a safer pathway to seeking protection. We know that out of the 22 recommendations put forward by the Houston report one of the key underlying principles was that of ensuring we gave people safer options. Yet that is the one recommendation that this government continues to drag its feet on.

We have had big fanfare from the minister about the planeloads of people we have sent from Christmas Island and dumped on Nauru, and I am sure we will have fanfare all over again once the coalition and the government tick off on such an inhumane policy to dump refugees, men, women and children, on Manus Island. But when are we getting our first planeload of refugees from Indonesia, from Malaysia, from Pakistan, giving them a safer option than having to come by boat in the first place? Experts have always argued, both in the Houston report and outside, that the best way of avoiding people having to take dangerous boat journeys is to give them a safer option, but that is not what this parliament has been dealing with for the last two months. We have had to suffer the obsession of the Labor government and Tony Abbott's coalition to punishing refugees in order to see if they can claw back some cheap, quick electoral votes. That is the crux of it, Mr Acting Deputy President. This is not about saving lives, this is all about dirty, bottom of the barrel politics.

This designation has been put forward today does not deal with the concerns that the Houston report said needed to be satisfied in order for the parliament to say, 'Yes, we could send people here.' We do not have the details of that. Let me go to one particular point: even in the memorandum of understanding with Papua New Guinea that the Australian government has signed and tabled as part of this designation, a key aspect is left unagreed. That is in relation to how unaccompanied minors are going to be treated. So we have the minister here, Senator Lundy, asking this chamber to tick off on this designation and yet with regard to the most vulnerable refugees that arrive here in Australia needing our protection, those children, whether they are orphaned or whether they had to flee and leave their mums and dads and their older brothers and sisters behind, there is no detail in this designation of how those children are going to be protected, who looks after them, who will be their guardian, what their rights are. They are the most vulnerable refugees, and this agreement is silent. Yet this parliament is expected to sign off on it.

We see in the documents put forward by the government to argue their case for why dumping refugees on Manus Island seems such a good idea to them, 'Oh well, there is not appropriate accommodation yet so we will put people in tents.' Manus Island has one of the world's highest malaria rates, but we are about to dump refugees, people who already have a fragile state of mental health and physical health, in tents in a place which has a massive rate of malaria. There is nothing in these documents to give us any rise to this chamber feeling satisfied that dumping refugees on Manus Island indefinitely is a good idea at all.

We know that the United Nations refused to participate, as they have in Nauru. They have also said that they will not participate for Manus Island and Papua New Guinea.

This government could not even convince the United Nations to participate in this process, despite the fact that if we are to have a proper regional framework that works towards lifting levels of protection the United Nations has to be involved. But this is such a poorly structured policy, based only on the obsession of deterrence, which has proved to fail, and the United Nations says, 'No, we are not participating.' Regarding the whole policy process by this government, rather than doing what the experts say we need, which is to lift levels of protection around the region so that people do not need to continue to run in order to seek and reach safety, the United Nations has said that this policy pushes down levels of protection and that it undermines the best levels of protection in this region.

Rather than Australia doing what is right, as a wealthy country governed by the rule of law, a country that proudly participated in the drafting of the refugee convention, under Julia Gillard's leadership, under Minister Bowen's leadership and under the spruiking by Minister Lundy, this government is trashing our obligations to the refugee convention. It will leave men, women and children locked up for years and years and years on a remote island in Papua New Guinea. That is not a way of lifting levels of protection for people—the most vulnerable in our region.

UNHCR, as I said, has refused to participate in this process, yet the government cannot even be bothered to make that clear in the designation that it gives to parliament to date. I guess it just assumes that we all would forget about it. It is an inconvenient truth that not even the world's leading refugee organisation will have a bar of this. Not only will the UNHCR not participate but also even the International Organization for Migration will not participate in this policy on Manus Island or Nauru.

The facilities, as outlined in the documents put forward by the government today, show that they are not ready to be housing refugees. We know that they were not ready in Nauru either. We also know that we started sending refugees to Nauru before the Australian government had even signed the contracts with the service providers. This chamber has demanded that the government table the contract with Transfield Services and they are still refusing to do it. Yet the government has the gall to ask the parliament to turn a blind eye to all of these botched mistakes and just allow them to start dumping people in another place, because they need the space and because their promises that offshore dumping was going to stop people coming by boats have not worked.

More people have come on boats in the last month than the month before. Yesterday we had a boat arrive with 100 people. This is not stopping desperate people from seeking safety and protection. The only way you do that is by ensuring people have safer alternatives. That is where the government has put no effort. We have heard nothing from the government about how many people they will resettle from Indonesia—genuine refugees who have been waiting in squalid conditions, hiding in Indonesia because they cannot go to school, cannot go to the doctor and cannot get work. But they have already been assessed as genuine refugees by the UNHCR.

When will the government start resettling some of those people so they do not have to come by boat? We have heard nothing from the government as to that particular recommendation from the Houston panel.

We know that this particular designation goes nowhere near addressing the very serious concerns about the negative impacts of detaining people indefinitely. Refugees will be locked up as prisoners for doing nothing but trying to seek safety and protection, which, despite the language that is used sometimes in this place by the other side, is not illegal. It is perfectly legal to seek asylum in Australia, as it is in any country that has signed the refugee convention. But this government wants to dump refugees—men, women and children—on a remote island in tents, surrounded by Dengue fever and malaria, indefinitely when all the expert knowledge tells us how damaging, how inhumane, how illegal that approach is. There is nothing that this government and senators on the Labor side have to feel proud of when today they will vote to indefinitely detain and indefinitely imprison refugees who have fled war, torture and persecution—all so that the government can say it is being tough and sending a message of deterrence that we know clearly is not working at the moment.

There is in the MoU with Papua New Guinea the allowance for this government to dump children on Manus Island. The question this government does not want to answer is: who will be going to Manus Island? When will we be sending orphaned refugee children, unaccompanied children and young children to Manus Island? If we do send young children and young families, which this designation allows, how long will those children spend in immigration detention on a remote island, suffering the lack of access to appropriate services?

We know that the health contract that has been signed does not allow for adequate mental health services to be available on Manus Island. In fact, the contract that was tabled for IHMS, the health service provider that will offer this service to both Manus Island and Nauru, says that the regular counselling that will be available to refugees on Manus Island will be via a telephone call to Sydney. A telephone call to Sydney will be the regular counselling services provided—outrageous. All of the evidence we have is that detaining vulnerable refugees—who have suffered the consequences of having to flee war, torture and persecution—indefinitely, remotely, out of sight and out of mind just compounds their suffering and compounds their traumatic experiences. Yet this government just wants to blindly follow in John Howard's footsteps.

The interesting thing about Senator Cash's contribution to this debate is that the senator fully admits that this is John Howard's policy. We have gotten to a point where the Labor Party has adopted the callous, cruel, inhumane policies of John Howard as their own, and there is no getting out of that. It was all in the name of stopping people coming here by boat but it has not worked.

It is not working and it has not worked. The only result will be years of suffering and inflicted pain on the very fragile, vulnerable refugees that we detain indefinitely, that this government will lock up on Manus Island and make them suffer for as long as they need to suffer so that the government thinks that that will send a message to others.

The experts have consistently told us that if we want to stop people having to take dangerous boat journeys, we need to have an open mind; bring people here safely ourselves. Yes, we have had a commitment to lift the refugee intake. When are we going to start resettling people from Indonesia? Why has the Australian government not brought people from Indonesia who have been assessed as genuine refugees and who have been waiting for years in Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan? Why aren't they here? Why haven't we had the first plane load arrive? It is because this government is not genuine about a humanitarian response.

This is all about competing with the heartless, callous policies of Tony Abbott's coalition. It is a race to the bottom. They are scraping the bottom of the barrel and there is no forethought for what impact indefinite detention will have on the children whom we send to Manus Island. All of the experts say indefinite detention is the worst possible thing that we can be doing to vulnerable refugees. The UN says we should not be doing it. The health experts say we should not be doing it. The government's senators, members of the House and ministers have argued in the past against indefinite detention. Yet here we have a policy that we are being asked to pass in this place to indefinitely dump refugee children on a remote island in Papua New Guinea, wiping our hands of responsibility for them.

This indefinite detention issue is exactly why I have circulated amendments in this chamber to limit the length of detention for any individual on Manus Island to 12 months. If this government cannot be organised enough to assess people's health, security and refugee claims within 12 months, they cannot be trusted to do anything. Twelve months is enough time to do those things. Anything beyond that is unnecessary suffering for these people. If people are found to be genuine refugees, we resettle them. If they are not then we send them home. But you do not need any longer than 12 months to get an answer on somebody's assessment. Most other comparable countries do it in far less than 12 months.

This is the second designation in the last month that we have spoken on in this chamber. Yet, again, it is riddled with gaps, hastily put together and does not have the information that this chamber needs access to in order to make a proper decision. But we will see this voted through today because the government and the coalition are so obsessed with being anti refugee, anti humanitarian and doing everything to make John Howard look good.

Therefore, I move:

At the end of the motion, add the following words:

"And calls on the Government to put in place a 12 month time limit on detention of an individual in Papua New Guinea."


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