Senate debates

Thursday, 4 December 2014


Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014; Second Reading

4:16 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

It is with great sadness that I follow Senator Carr, particularly with respect to some of the final words he spoke into the Hansard today—that is, that the government is holding children to ransom in order to get agreement on the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014. I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Carr's comments.

In looking at the bill before us today and going by the media reports—because that is all we have to go on—seemingly, what some in this place have signed up for is no guarantee. If the media reports are correct, the offer to increase the humanitarian intake, which is one of the propositions we believe has been put forward, is a conditional one. It seems that those senators in this place that have signed up to that deal do not even have a firm undertaking—just a vague commitment that if others are processed the government might find a way to increase the humanitarian intake.

Senator Carr is completely right when he says that the government could act on children in detention right now, and it could. Many government senators and members have had a group called Love Makes a Way come and sit in their offices and talk to them. This is a religious group that has said over and over again that what the Abbott government is doing to children in detention is wrong. Those children could be taken out of detention today, yesterday, a month ago—but, no, we see not an ounce of compassion from the Abbott government. Equally, people could be processed. What we have seen over and over again from this government is the complete demonisation of refugees and asylum seekers in our country. We see nothing but demonisation of those who seek our protection in this country.

The bill before us today is really about a much bigger issue, one that the Abbott government is completely silent on. All we see from the Abbott government is their mean spirit and their small-mindedness, not just in the area of refugees and asylum seekers but right across all areas of government. We never hear the Abbott government talk about refugees who are displaced from their home country. They never talk about the persecution of refugees and they never acknowledge that the persecution of refugees is a worldwide issue. We never hear the Abbott government talking about that. That is really where the debate should start. It should look at this global issue facing all countries in the world. But, no, the Abbott government, because of their mean spirit, because of their demonisation, want to start by looking at those who try to enter this country. It is as if they were just beamed in, and that is where they start from.

What I and others want to do is shine a light on the Abbott government's absolute unwillingness to take that global perspective on refugees. Instead, over and over again, it seeks to make political capital. Over the last couple of days it has sunk to its lowest level by making political capital out of children. It is making political capital out of those who are genuinely seeking asylum. The Abbott government has shown no compassion on the issue of refugees. Instead it demonises refugees and asylum seekers at every opportunity.

If we think back a few months ago to the death of Reza Barati, the minister was the first to point the finger; Reza's death was somehow the fault of refugees. Those were the first words he uttered. Somehow they were at fault because they were rioting. All the questions from government backbenchers to ministers, whether in the other place or in the Senate, are about stopping the boats. They are not about the world's global refugee issue. They are not about the world's global asylum issue. They are simply about stopping the boats and calling asylum seekers 'illegal maritime arrivals'—dehumanising them. There has not been one question by a government backbencher about children in detention showing any skerrick of humanity; not one question about the global refugee solution—just this continued hardline demonisation of refugees and those seeking asylum.

The bill before us today seeks to make it easier for the government to deny its protection obligations—and it does have obligations to certain people. There are a lot of myths—and I heard them in this chamber yesterday at the start of this debate. The facts are: Australia does not host a large number of refugees. By comparison, Pakistan, a country that does not have the wealth that Australia has, hosts over 1.6 million refugees. Iran hosts almost 900,000 refugees. Chad has almost half a million. And Australia? Just 13,750 refugees are granted permanency residency by Australia each year—a tiny, tiny drop in the ocean. Per $1 billion of GDP, we take in less than 35 refugees. By comparison, Pakistan takes 2,811. I would say that we can afford it.

When we look at refugees hosted by countries across the world, Pakistan is the No. 1 currently, and that stands to reason, because they are in a conflict zone. But to suggest there is some kind of queue or orderly processing—of course there is not. It is another myth, another way, for the Abbott government to dehumanise refugees and asylum seekers. On that refugee hosting list, Australia is at No. 49. Countries ahead of us include China, Ethiopia, United States, Jordan, Lebanon and Iran, and on and on it goes. We are not a fair country, a generous country, when it comes to refugees and asylum seekers.

This bill today seeks to curtail rights and endorse in a legal framework the sorts of actions we have seen the Abbott government take on the high seas such as turning boats around or separating out a boat and its occupants—all of this sneaky stuff to legitimatise what they have been doing in secret.

When we look at asylum seeker applications, where does Australia sit? It is No. 30. At the top of the list is Lebanon then Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Germany, France, South Africa, Sweden and the United States—all in the top 10. And where are we? Right down the list at No. 30.

There is no need for this harsh, cruel legislation, because the reality is: we are not swamped by refugee applications. Contrary to what the Abbott government would have us believe, the truth is: we are not swamped. Compared to other refugee-hosting countries, Australia actually receives a very small number of asylum seeker applications, with about 16,000 people seeking asylum per year in Australia. By contrast, the United States receives 68,000 applications a year; and Germany many more—almost double that; almost three-quarters of a million. Australia has an obligation to help with the global refugee situation, and our responsibilities do not start and end with boats—they clearly do not.

The legislation before us today will seek to further demonise those genuine refugees seeking asylum in our country and curtail their rights. It is like blackmail. This commitment that we will take children out of detention by Christmas is a furphy, because the government has been so slow at processing applications. We would have no guarantee of that anyway, so I do not know what senators in this place think they would be signing up to when they sign on the bottom line that somehow children will be magically out of detention by Christmas. Are we are going to see yet a new form of visa, a Christmas visa, issued to those children in detention?

We already know that it is taking the Abbott government months and months and months to process applications. Why would any senator in this place think that somehow magically the government is going to process those children in a matter of weeks? Who in their right mind would believe that, particularly from a government who has constantly broken promise after promise?

How could anyone be hoodwinked about the increased numbers for humanitarian reasons when it is conditional upon the government to process what it claims is some kind of legacy? It has been the government for more than a year, and all we have seen is the processing claims almost stop in this country. It is well and truly below any kind of rate that we have seen in the past. Why would we even think that our humanitarian intake would be increased when it is a conditional commitment on the basis that the Abbott government processes 30,000 other applications? Whoever did the negotiation is a very poor negotiator to think we could get to that number and to think that we could have children out of detention by Christmas. In any event, it is such a low blow. It is almost the worst thing the Abbott government has done, to hold children up as some kind of bargaining chip. We do process very few applications in relation to other countries.

We know that many refugees return home, but a set number of years in Australia cannot guarantee people a durable solution. We have this new visa, the SHEV visa, and there is some question about what that might lead to because it has not been properly thought through. What does it actually mean? And here we are today being held in this place until we pass this bill, with very limited information around it.

Labor's views have been very clear on temporary protection visas: we believe that they are damaging to refugees and that they are inhumane and discriminatory. We know that during the Howard years refugees on temporary protection visas were unable to apply for family reunion visas. They are not allowed to work—although we understand the minister is saying he will give work rights as part of the deal, but let's see the detail of that. What assistance will they be given to resettle in Australia? They certainly will not be given any kind of stability on a temporary protection visa—no permanence. And there is the psychological damage that refugees fleeing persecution have, because that is the test. When people are granted asylum it is on the basis that they have been persecuted. That is what we are talking about here: people—men, women and children—who cannot remain in their home countries, who have left those countries because they have been persecuted. Let us not forget that.

Let us also not forget that refugees are a global problem, and Australia takes a very tiny part of that. We have seen that through this government cutting back foreign aid, and earlier this week we had the threat that foreign aid would be cut even further. We help to resolve conflicts in other countries by doing a whole range of things. Sometimes, yes, we have to send troops in, but we also give aid by way of talking to people and educating people about democracy. We give aid that helps with health, aid that helps to educate children and to provide basic water security and other basic needs that countries have. But what we have seen under the Abbott government is a retraction of all of that. We are not only abrogating our responsibility in terms of the global refugee program; we are making matters worse by withdrawing and reducing foreign aid.

What kind of country are we becoming? We are becoming a small minded, mean spirited country. That is what we have seen this government do across a whole range of areas. And if this bill gets up today it will treat refugees and those seeking asylum in our country in a very harsh way—much harsher than what is required. But obviously the Abbott government still thinks it is on a winning vote, still thinks that demonising refugees is going to win it votes. They are wrong. Australians by and large were quite disgusted and horrified over the death of Reza Berati. And more and more Australians are horrified about the numbers of children we have in detention, and they are starting to ask questions. When you have conservative religious leaders in this country risking arrest and prosecution themselves—which is what Love Makes a Way do—something is wrong. These are not radical, left-wing churches. These are ordinary, everyday conservative churches and leaders. The leaders of those churches are saying to the Abbott government, 'You've overstepped the mark.' I know how passionate the Love Makes a Way group are because they have been in my office. I invited them into my office. They do not need to stage a sit-in in my office and get arrested. I invited them in, we had afternoon tea and we sat down and discussed the issues. But I know that my friends at Love Makes a Way would be quite disgusted about this blackmailing. As desperate as they are to have children out of detention, they certainly would not sign up to this sort of deal. They would not, because they understand that what we need is a humane approach to asylum seekers and those who flee their countries because of persecution.

This bill is completely unnecessary. All it does is to try to legitimise those secret matters that have been occurring out in the oceans between Australia and Indonesia that the Australian public do not know anything about. What we do know is that this bill seeks to legitimise those actions. It is a harsh treatment of those fleeing persecution. To use children as political pawns in this process is an absolute disgrace and the Abbott government will be held to account for that.


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