Senate debates

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


Manus Island

11:00 am

Photo of Penny WrightPenny Wright (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak today on the designation of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea as a regional processing country. And so our nation's trajectory of shame in relation to our treatment of asylum seekers continues. I have spoken on this too many times before. We once had a proud history when it came to the way in which we responded to some of the world's most desperate and wretched peoples. At that time I think we could have held our heads up high if that had been our national anthem at the time. Those particular lines, 'For those who've come across the seas/We've boundless plains to share,' genuinely reflected the way we saw ourselves as a small but proud nation prepared to sign up to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. In fact, we were one of the first countries willing to sign up to that convention which, as we all know, was a response to the disgrace that was the case of how Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany were treated during the Second World War.

Proudly, we signed up to the convention in 1954, and as a result of that convention we undertook obligations on a world stage to treat people seeking asylum with respect. We took on an obligation to assess persons claiming asylum as to whether they were genuine refugees. What we know now is that of those persons coming to Australia seeking asylum over 90 per cent are ultimately assessed to be genuine refugees. We also undertook obligations of non-refoulement under the 1951 refugee convention—not forcibly returning people seeking asylum to the country from which they were fleeing.

The designation motion that is being debated today is only possible because of the shameful passage of the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Act several months ago. In my view, the passing of this legislation heralded a low point in Australia's willingness to allow human rights violations in order to achieve a pragmatic, political outcome. The Human Rights Law Centre has analysed the human rights violations in that legislation and they have been scathing in their analysis. They have said that the legislation:

… enables the government of the day to designate any country as a regional processing country—

and, of course, that is what we are doing today—

regardless of the human rights protections afforded in that country either under international or domestic law. This is likely to give rise to violations of non-refoulement obligations under the Refugee Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture, all of which have been ratified by Australia.

The Act provides for the removal of unaccompanied children to a regional processing country for a broad range of reasons considered to be in the 'national interest', contrary to the general obligation under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure that the best interests of the child are given primary consideration and the specific obligation to ensure that asylum seeker children receive all necessary human rights protections and humanitarian assistance.

This is the pass that we have come to in Australia. The Human Rights Law Centre went on to say:

The Act provides that the rules of natural justice do not apply to a range of Ministerial decisions, including decisions as to which countries should be designated as regional processing countries, whether an asylum seeker should be sent offshore, and which regional processing country an asylum seeker should be sent to. This directly breaches Australia's obligations under the ICCPR to ensure that, in the determination of rights and obligations, a person must have access to the courts and is entitled to a full and fair hearing.

The litany of human rights violations continues.

This designation today—what would it involve? What does it represent? Essentially, if this motion is passed today and the Independent State of Papua New Guinea is designated as a regional processing country, it will be one of the wealthiest nations in the world outsourcing our moral responsibilities to one of our poor neighbours, one of the poorest countries in the world. Our neighbours like Nauru and Papua New Guinea are far more economically challenged than what we are.

On one hand, we posture on the world stage and in our own neighbourhood about the need to work together but our actions—and they are actions promoted by the Australian Labor Party, and Tony Abbott and the coalition—convey a lack of respect for our regional partners and an unwillingness to take genuine responsibility for those asylum seekers who seek refuge with us.

Let us compare the situation that we face with those of our regional partners—partners like Indonesia, who have 10,000 asylum seekers; Malaysia, who have 90,000 asylum seekers; and Thailand, who have more than 140,000 asylum seekers. About 6,000 asylum seekers come to Australia each year by boat, and it is a small fraction of our immigration intake of 110,000. We welcome the fact that the refugee intake has been increased to 20,000 but this is still extremely low in comparison to our peers, other wealthy nations, in the world. So in 2010 Canada received 23,160 asylum seekers and in France it was 47,790.

In Australia we expect our regional partners Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to agree to new responsibilities for thousands of asylum seekers but we are not prepared to shoulder the burden equally. We use our economic power and influence to pressure more vulnerable states like Nauru and Papua New Guinea to take on our moral responsibilities for us.

What will it mean to designate the Independent State of Papua New Guinea as a regional processing country and, more specifically, asylum seekers to Manus Island? I would like to refer to the words of a man called Paul Lonot Sireh, a Manus Islander, a Manusian. He was born and bred there. He did his primary and secondary schooling there and then went to a seminary to study for the priesthood. He left Papua New Guinea for Australia about 12 years ago and he has recently written some heartfelt words about the prospect of having Manus Island designated as a regional processing centre to take Australia's responsibility for refugees. He said:

Being a Manusian, I am feeling sad for my island and my people.

…   …   …

The move to spend millions of dollars to reopen the Manus detention centre is very much like building a palace in the middle of a slum. Manus Island is a forgotten province in PNG to say the least as regards development. People's lifestyle is undisturbed and peaceful. However like most developing peoples we are now feeling marginalized and our needs ignored by both governments. Because I reside in Australia, I am privileged to have access to a modern and western lifestyle, with three meals a day, better clothing, and many other benefits from living in this country. Manus Islanders don't have these privileges.

Can both the Australian and PNG governments help improve the living conditions of the islanders before thinking of spending millions on an exercise that will not be beneficial to all? If foreigners are to be sent to Manus, how will the needs of all Manus Islanders be met?

What would be the ideal way to boost the local economy on Manus? Here are a few suggestions for much needed improvements to infrastructure. Our deserted Lorengau town needs to be developed with good roads, housing and good sanitation. The Manus highway is very much like a logging track. The wharf has been there since World War II. People are dying every day because there are insufficient drugs and no hospital facilities to attend to the sick. The airport terminal needs to be renovated or completely rebuilt. These are just some of the vital needs of Manus Island if Australia and PNG governments are serious about boosting the local economy.

I will interpolate here with my own comments: through Australia exerting economic influence to displace our moral responsibility to process those people coming to our shores seeking asylum by placing them in a less privileged country like Papua New Guinea and a less privileged area in a less privileged country like Manus Island, the divisions that can be set up, the jealousies, the misunderstandings that can occur, we must take some responsibility for. By displacing our moral responsibilities we are spreading the wretchedness of those people who are coming to Australia seeking asylum from us.

I will continue with Mr Sireh's words:

But my main concern is that Australia is a prosperous First World nation that is economically capable of accepting a much large number of refugees who reach our shores seeking asylum from war, violence and persecution. By offering Manus PNG, with a much weaker developing economy, substantial aid to process many of these asylum seekers, Australia is lapsing back into the habits of its colonial past by exploiting the resources of another nation, in this case the willingness and economic needs of the remote Manus Islanders.

The government is asking Manus-PNG to do what they themselves are not willing to do. The fact that the government's motive is to deny asylum seekers the protection of Australian Law makes moving their problems to PNG all the more reprehensible.

…   …   …

Despite the many differences, are there not also many parallels with the early history of Australia, when England decided to solve her convict problems by sending them around the world to Botany Bay—out of sight, out of mind?

Mr Sireh reminds us of the experiences of the Palestinian asylum seeker Aladdin Siselam, who remained the sole detainee on Manus Island for 10 months in 2004. Mr Siselam told ABC Radio's Saturday AMprogram that it would be wrong to reopen the facility, that it is a bad decision and he gave testimony to the effect on his own mental health of being detained on Manus Island. He went on to say he continues to experience a mental disability from the post-traumatic stress he experienced after that detention and suffering, and that it has been difficult for him to rebuild his life. I will come back to what we know are the ongoing consequences for people's mental health of indefinite detention.

Mr Sireh says:

I strongly urge that such experiences should not happen again. To re-open the Manus detention centre would be inhumane and destructive for the health and wellbeing of all involved.

Please leave Manus Island alone if the local people can't benefit from it, and the very name of Manus Island becomes linked around the world with injustice and persecution.

As I have already indicated, we are denying asylum seekers their basic human rights—rights that every human being is entitled to. The legislation that enables this designation to occur explicitly denies the rights of natural justice. It provides explicitly that protections within the legislation are not binding on the government and it removes the role of the minister as a guardian for unaccompanied minors, children, and begs the question: who ultimately will be responsible for these people? They are vulnerable because they are minors and particularly vulnerable because they are asylum seekers.

One of the worst aspects of this policy is the fact that it subjects people to a term of detention which is indefinite on the basis of this idea of no advantage being given to those people who seek asylum by coming to Australia by boat. As Julian Burnside, the eminent jurist, has pointed out: this is nonsensical. What are the dynamics? How can this concept of no advantage and how can the length of detention be determined when there are so many flaws in applying the formula?

How does one determine when a person seeking asylum in Australia and arriving by boat would otherwise have been resettled? How do we determine what the average term of waiting for resettlement would have been? Do we take the average standard of an African refugee camp? Do we look at waiting times in Malaysia or Indonesia? Depending on what formula we apply, the difference could be between five and 40 years. Either of those possibilities would be totally unacceptable.

Effectively, this policy has people being sentenced to exile in a place that is out of sight, out of mind for Australians, for an unknown period in conditions that are unacceptable. Their 'crime' is seeking asylum under a convention which Australia proudly signed up to in 1954. We know that there will be devastating consequences for these people. These people will, by and large, be the future citizens of Australia, and we as a nation will continue to pick up the tab for the economic costs; the ongoing assistance and rehabilitation for the mental effects of the detention; the cost of the opportunity lost by having these people's potential squandered for the period they are detained; their concept for what it is to be an Australian and the way that will fundamentally be affected by what they have experienced; and also our concept of ourselves as a people.

The effects of this will be generational, and I am sure that history will judge what we are doing extremely harshly. We know, particularly in relation to the mental health consequences of indefinite detention, how serious those consequences are because we have now been doing this experiment for a decade. We know that indefinite detention creates factors for producing mental illness and mental disorder. It seems to me that if we had set about to design a cruel process to achieve a devastating outcome we could not have been more effective.

These are people who flee trauma, persecution and threats to their lives and their families, who have often experienced or witnessed things unthinkable for those of us who sit in this chamber. They take perilous journeys to reach our shores and they come with hope, seeking solace and refuge—and we dash that hope, we dehumanise them, we demonise them and we lock them up indefinitely. And now we ship them away from our shores to places like Nauru and Manus Island, where there is one of the highest rates of malaria in the Pacific. It is not surprising that indefinite detention leads to self-harm, severe depression and suicide. We saw that time and time again at Nauru, where children swallowed shampoo in an effort to kill themselves. This is the responsibility that we all have to be prepared to take if we are going to implement this kind of policy.

This is a complex problem, but the Greens have been willing to genuinely grapple with this. There are no easy solutions, and so we have a Greens policy that is aimed at ensuring that people do not feel that they need to take desperate measures in order to get the opportunity to seek a better life. That is the way to stop the boats.

It is only through leadership—the kind of leadership that this country deserves and that we are all elected to take on as a sign of the trust placed in us by the Australian people—that we will see genuine progress in dealing with this difficult issue. There is much at stake. It is not just the immediate welfare of those people coming to us for refuge right now but also our international reputation. Most importantly, in the end it is about our own concept of who we are as a people and what we stand for. I genuinely believe that we are better than this policy would suggest, and urge the Senate not to support the motion.


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