Senate debates

Thursday, 25 June 2015


Migration Amendment (Regional Processing Arrangements) Bill 2015; First Reading

10:54 am

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

I rise today to speak in opposition to the Migration Amendment (Regional Processing Arrangements) Bill 2015. I have already raised my concerns about the way this bill has been rushed into the parliament without any real justification by the government. We really have to get to the heart of what this debate is about.

Back in 2012 under the Gillard government there was an agreement between Julia Gillard as Prime Minister and Tony Abbot as the Leader of the Opposition to pass legislation in this place to reopen the detention camps on Manus Island and Nauru. The Greens strenuously opposed that at the time and we spent hours in this place debating the legislation and running through amendment after amendment. Back then we questioned the wisdom of pushing through legislation that would not have significant safeguards for conditions inside the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres, the fact that there was no independent oversight of these centres, the fact that there was no media access, the fact that there was no time limit on the detention of any person held in these places, let alone those who are most vulnerable, including children and minors who arrive here on our shores all on their own. Every single one of those amendments was opposed at the time by both the Labor government and the Abbott opposition.

What we have seen since then, unfortunately, despite being told, 'It will all be okay, Joe—trust us; we will run these places properly' is the exact opposite. These places have turned into camps of hell. Children have been detained for over two years; young men have been detained for three or four years. There are children who are now suffering in Nauru after being sexually abused and assaulted. One young girl, five years old, was swallowing razor blades because of her level of depression and mental health—a five-year-old child swallowing razor blades. That is what is going on in the Nauru detention camp.

Last year explosive evidence was brought forward in relation to child sexual abuse in Nauru, with women, mothers, being forced to exchange sexual favours so that they could get more time in the shower blocks to clean their children. Witness account after witness account, through the Moss review, the Human Rights Commission report and now this chamber's own parliamentary inquiry, shows that the conditions inside the Nauru detention centre are toxic, are seedy and are inhumane, and it is simply unconscionable for this parliament to not act in order to clean this up.

The bill that we have before us today has been brought forward in a rush, in less than 24 hours, because there is a case before the High Court that involves a number of families. One of those families has had a baby, born here in Australia—a little baby born here in an Australian hospital. In any other world, that child would be considered an Australian, considered to be able to have access to Australian citizenship. That family, in any other circumstance, would be able to celebrate the birth of that child and think about how they would be providing for that child, what school that child would go to, what a great Australian that child would grow up to be. One of those families is one of the claimants in this case, and they are horrified and scared about being sent back to indefinite detention in Nauru.

There are two parts to this case. The first is that the government has not had the legal authority to pay contractors and the Papua New Guinea and Nauru governments the billions and billions needed over the last three years to run these camps. This bill would give legal authority to keep paying billions of Australian taxpayer dollars to keep these camps, that are being run atrociously, operating. The second aspect of this legal challenge is the authority to keep these people in detention, the authority to transfer that newborn baby from Australia to Nauru and to lock her up indefinitely and to lock up the other 80 children who are here in Australia that the immigration minister wants to send to Nauru. There are 80 children here in Australia who have been told they are on the next plane to Nauru, to be locked up in these hellhole conditions indefinitely. I have heard the government's comments on this bill and I have heard the statements made by members of the Labor Party. I want to make it very clear that this bill does more than just give the power to pay contractors. This bill specifically goes to allowing the Commonwealth to do several things, the first of which is:

To take, or cause to be taken, any action in relation to the arrangement or the regional processing functions of the country; …

It is unfettered power as to how they want to run these places; it is an action that is defining this piece of legislation as legislation that permits the exercising of restraint over the liberty of a person. This goes to the heart of the lawfulness of indefinitely detaining a person, whether it is a man, woman or child, in these places.

This is not just about plugging a loophole. These detention camps have been getting worse by the day for the last three years. Now we find they have been run illegally; they have been paid for illegally. You could probably fix those things pretty simply, sure, but the only way to clean these things up is to put some constraints on the government's power to detain people. That is why we will propose a number of amendments in the committee stage. I do not agree with offshore processing; I do not agree that the 'do whatever it takes' attitude means locking children up in an island prison indefinitely. I do not agree that keeping people in squalid conditions in the vain hope that they will give up on seeking protection and just go home to a war zone to face their torturers is what we should be doing. I do not agree that Australia should just legislate away our legal, international and moral obligations and responsibilities. I do not agree with any of those things—but these hellholes exist.

This government and the Labor opposition are rock-solid on keeping these places going. I wish that was not the case. While they are open, Australian taxpayers are going to be spending billions and billions of dollars—one contract for Transfield Services to keep Nauru open for 20 months costs the Australian taxpayer $1.2 billion, and yet there is no running water in these camps. There is not enough food for the children. There are not any toys in the camp. Two years ago hundreds of Australians donated toys to my office to send to Nauru because there were no toys for the children locked up in this place—yet the contractor is paid $1.2 billion of Australian taxpayer money. What is it being spent on? It is not being spent on running a camp that is humane, that is well functioning or that is safe. Staff employed by these contractors are abusing children, are raping women, are sexually assaulting people, are intimidating people detained there. We know this because the evidence has come forward over and over again, and particularly in recent months, to this Senate chamber's own parliamentary inquiry into the matter.

We have to put some restrictions on how these places are run. There need to be some time limits. Why do we think it is okay to fly somebody to Nauru and lock them up forever without trial, without ever being able to see a judge, with no legal protection, with no access to a lawyer—lock them up and effectively throw away the key, all because they had the courage to flee a war zone with their family? Australia's asylum seeker policy is an international disgrace. We have to be doing things better. I do not think anyone can argue that the detention of a child is worth this; that robbing a child of their childhood simply to send not a message to the people smugglers—let's get real—but a political message in the midst of what has become an ugly, ugly debate in this country is worth it.

The Human Rights Commission has no access to the Nauru or Manus Island detention centres, and neither does the Commonwealth Ombudsman, despite the fact that billions of Australian taxpayers' dollars are spent funding these. One of the elements of this court case that the government wants to scuttle is that these facilities are Australia's responsibility. We sign the contracts. The Australian government sets the rules. They sign the cheques. They train the staff. They decide who goes in, who comes out and how long they are there for. These places are run by the Australian government. This government and the previous government put these places in Nauru and PNG so that they could be out of sight, out of mind and out of the hands of what we would normally expect in Australia to be the rule of law. But they are still Australian. These are still Australia's camps that are locking up men, women and children—punishing them for fleeing torture, abuse and war.

There are a number of Syrian families detained in Nauru. There are also 68 people who are Rohingyans who have fled the torture camps in Burma and then in the jungle in Malaysia and Thailand. There are 68 of them locked up in Nauru. We have seen, over recent weeks, the footage of how these people are treated. We have seen the world, the international community, condemn the treatment of these people by both the Burmese government and of course the people smugglers who tricked them. And yet, rather than dealing with the problem at the source, we are punishing those 68 people by keeping them locked up indefinitely in a hellhole in Nauru. That is wrong.

Those people have not committed any crime. There is nothing in Australian law that says that it is illegal to come here as a refugee—nothing. There is a law that says: 'For administrative purposes, you must be detained,' but nothing that says: 'It is illegal to seek asylum.' It does not matter how you get here; that is not what the Australian law says. It does not matter how many times the government wants to use the word 'illegal'. It does not matter how many directions the minister gives his public servants to use the word 'illegal'. It is not illegal in Australian law, let alone international law, to seek asylum or to be a refugee.

This would have been and this is today an opportunity for us to try and fix things. And I appeal to the crossbench and to the Labor Party. I have on the record my views and the Greens' views. We do not support offshore processing. But we will do whatever we can to make it a less cruel place. The dozens of children and women who have suffered at the hands of abusers in the Nauru detention centre over the last two years deserve that. They deserve some help. They deserve to have their suffering acknowledged, heard and acted upon. Today is an opportunity to do that.

We could have spent a good amount of time going through the legislation and working out if there was anything else that needed to be done. If we are going to spend Australian taxpayers' money running these places, let us make sure that they are being run properly, because we know that at the moment they are certainly not.

The private contractors that are making hundreds of millions and billions of dollars' worth of profit out of the people's misery on Nauru do not even want to answer basic questions. We saw that in the recent Senate inquiry. They do not want a bar of it. They want the Australian government to take responsibility. And then we have the Australian government saying, 'We don't want to take responsibility; it's all Nauru's and PNG's fault.' No—what the case before the High Court and the Australian government's response today, of rushing through legislation, shows is that the responsibility lies squarely at the feet of the Australian government, the immigration minister and his department.

So this is where we have to fix it. Let us get some time limits on detention. Let us stop children who are being born in Australia having to be deported back to Nauru. Let us ensure that people who are employed in these places have a legal requirement to report abuse and suffering, just as we would in any other government institution or agency. There should not be an explosive decision for this chamber today to make to ensure that if staff, who are employed to care for individuals, children and families who are locked up, see abuse happening, they must report it—and that cannot just be to the immigration department, because we know that, in 2013, two years ago, children were being sexually abused, the department knew about it, and nothing was done to remove those children from the centre. We know that because that is the evidence that has been given. We know that because some brave staff who work in these places have had enough—enough of the secrecy; enough of the cruelty—and have been prepared to stand up. And now is the time for the Senate to do the same. I urge the Labor Party to act with courage.


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