Senate debates

Thursday, 2 March 2006


Legal and Constitutional References Committee; Reference

11:05 am

Photo of Annette HurleyAnnette Hurley (SA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the following matters be referred to the Legal and Constitutional References Committee for inquiry and report:
all actions carried out by the Government for assisting refugee and special humanitarian visa holders in their country of departure and managing the transition of refugees and humanitarian entrants from their country of departure to their settlement in Australia;
the processes used by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to handle the migration of the family of Mr Richard Niyonsaba to Australia and the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr Niyonsaba after his arrival in Australia; and
recommendations for improvement in the processes for assisting refugees and humanitarian entrants in order to protect the health, safety and welfare of all future new arrivals to Australia.

I would like to give a bit of background on the humanitarian settlement services that are the subject of this motion. These tenders started on 1 October last year. Contrary to previous practice, where non-profit organisations such as migrant resource centres—often in conjunction with church groups such as Anglicare—provided these services, the tender last year was marked by the entry of private, for-profit organisations. The organisation ACL won the tender in the largest migrant area, Sydney’s northern and southern zones. Several days after the commencement of those tenders on 1 October 2005, ACL was sold to IBT for around $55 million. This was subsequent to winning those tenders for five years, and we have now been made aware that each of those tenders was worth about $27½ million.

So we have a private, for-profit organisation that is obviously such an enticing target that it was bought by the larger IBT organisation. Neither of those organisations—neither ACL nor IBT—had any previous experience in dealing with refugee and humanitarian settlement. ACL was a company that had provided English language teaching services, including services to migrants newly arrived in Australia. So the contact that they had had with refugees was only in providing those English language services.

In the early days of this tender we did not hear any complaints from other areas, but there were numerous issues raised by volunteers—particularly in the Newcastle area, which was part of the northern Sydney tender. These people had previously worked with the migrant resource centre in New South Wales and other service providers in that area. They were raising horrendous stories about refugees and humanitarian entrants who had met with appalling treatment, including the case of two young women who had been allowed entry to Australia under a visa which implied that they had been given just appalling treatment.

These young girls were left in an outer suburb of Newcastle in a house with no curtains. They were given inadequate supplies and were left with no method of contacting anyone else. They did not have a phone. After five days they wandered off on their own. They were terrified. They had come from a bush area of Africa where they were under threat. They were finally so hungry and frightened that they left on their own and were picked up by passing motorist, who was, fortunately, a pastor associated with a church. They were taken safely to where the volunteers who had previously provided services gave them some help. The ACL caseworker who was assigned to them had not contacted them in those five days.

This was not an isolated incident. There were many other incidents of this kind. These volunteers drew the attention of ACL and the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to the problems that these refugees were encountering when they arrived in Australia. They were met with little or no response from either ACL or the department of immigration. This got some publicity in the Newcastle newspapers. Indeed, Ms Sharon Grierson, the local member for that area, pointed out in parliament that there seemed to be some problems arising.

It came to more general public attention late last year after the death in Sydney of Richard Niyonsaba, a two-year-old Burundian boy who died within a couple of days of arriving in Australia. In this instance Richard Niyonsaba had been identified and treated before he came to Australia. He had been treated in Africa—in Nigeria, I understand—by IOM, the International Organisation for Migration. They were aware that this boy had severe chronic illnesses. He had sickle cell anaemia and associated problems, including pneumonia. He was treated in a hospital in Nigeria, but then he and the family were allowed to travel. They arrived in Australia not having eaten or drunk much on the plane. When they arrived in Australia they informed their caseworker that they were tired and hungry. One of the reasons that they were hungry was that the food on the plane was foreign to them. They did not know how to eat it and they did not understand it. They explained this to the caseworker on arrival and he took them to McDonald’s. I doubt that was the most appropriate kind of food for them to have in any case.

Later that night the child became ill again. The father had been given the routine introduction to Australia. The phone in their flat did not dial out except to call 000. The father had had it briefly explained to him that he had to say ‘fire’, ‘ambulance’ or ‘police’ if he called 000. But the family had never encountered a telephone before. They were refugees and they had spent the last few years in a refugee camp. They did not know how to use a telephone. The father was unable to call the emergency services. Eventually, he heard movement downstairs and, even though they did not speak a common language, he was able to get a Sudanese man to come upstairs with him. By that time, unfortunately, Richard Niyonsaba had already died.

As a result of this and other complaints the service provider, ACL, did an internal report by a lawyer who was part of a firm which had been employed by ACL for the previous five years. I have no doubt that that lawyer did the best he could, but many of the volunteers who had been complaining and many of the refugees did not cooperate with that inquiry. So Mr Fiora, the lawyer involved, spent most of his time talking to either departmental officials from DIMA or ACL caseworkers. Nevertheless, that report contained some interesting recommendations—some for ACL regarding their method of treatment of refugees and some for DIMA.

This report, while useful, is inadequate. The Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, in answer to my question in parliament, got the nationality of the ACL caseworker that was providing services to the family wrong. She said repeatedly that the caseworker was Burundian and understood the family and family customs very well. She had to admit later that she had got it wrong. The caseworker was from Costa Rica and the language he shared with the family of Richard Niyonsaba was a second language for both of them. There is some dispute, indeed, about how much the family understood that language.

So there are still many unanswered questions. I have called several times for an independent inquiry into that. Even though that child died—and a number of other serious incidents have now been admitted by the department and ACL—there has been no independent inquiry. Following that, we now understand that, despite the treatment by IOM in Africa, the caseworker who went to meet the family had not been told of the serious medical condition of Richard Niyonsaba. We are still no clearer as to why and how that happened, whether it was a fault of IOM in Africa, DIMA or ACL. These are serious questions that need to be answered.

If processes are in place that need to be addressed, we need to hear about them. Quite frankly, we have had a series of examples where the department of immigration has just stuck its head in the sand when there are problems. It has refused to address the issues and has refused, until forced, to address the problems within its own department. These problems with humanitarian settlement services I see as an extension of that. This is why I am calling for an examination of all the processes involved and of all the monitoring processes in place so that we can see what is happening with the administration of this contract.

In estimates earlier this year, the department said that they did not have any discussions with the contract providers until late December last year, even though these new contracts had been in place since 1 October. The national office of DIMA also claimed not to have heard of any complaints coming to state offices. For a new contract, a new system, where we had for-profit service providers and people who had not provided these sorts of services before, this is an appalling admission of a lack of proper monitoring of the contract. We have just had the minister saying, regarding the Baxter contract and the Global Solutions Ltd contract, that they have now recognised, after years of complaints, that there are problems and that they are looking at the contract, separating the contract and dealing with it—in some years time, apparently. I think it is appalling that it is possible that this kind of delay will happen in this situation.

We invite refugees into our country, and the Prime Minister keeps referring to us as a ‘generous country’. And it is indeed generous. We have certainly increased our refugee and humanitarian intake, and that is very good. But, having accepted people who we know are suffering great trauma and stress, who are often ill, and who have been in stressful situations and then refugee camps for many years, surely it is important that we look after them when they arrive in this country. It is important that we provide transitional services which allow them to become good citizens of our country and become a part of Australian society, not put them in situations where they are even more stressed, worried and concerned and left hungry and disorientated in our country. It is an appalling way to treat people who come to our country. Even in the fifties, when there were a lot of criticisms of the migrant camps, at least people were given some orientation. They were put with other people from their own country and other people in similar circumstances. But that does not appear to be the case here. We hear about it happening only in Sydney. Again, in estimates, I attempted to find out if there were problems in other states where, by and large, the migrant resource centres or other community groups are providing these services, but I was unable to get answers about this.

I implore the government and the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to stop and have a good look at their systems in this case and not subject any further entrants into this country under the refugee and humanitarian services programs to the sort of horrible treatment that has been meted out to the people I have described and to others. We recently heard the case of a person who was a double amputee who had to provide for himself and get to doctors himself. He was put in a first floor unit and had to go up the stairs using his hands. That happened within the last month or so, so I am just not convinced that the department are properly addressing these serious issues.

ACL have contacted me, and I happy to meet with them and discuss the issues. I am sure they have made changes to their services, but they did not make them quickly enough. The department did not monitor the contract well enough, and the department seem to refuse to look properly at their own services and systems. It is not a good enough response to the terrible treatment that some refugees have experienced and, more particularly, to the death of a two-year-old child and the subsequent trauma of that family.

11:21 am

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

I hope that on this occasion the government will at least do the Senate the courtesy of putting their case for why they will not support this motion. I understand they are not. This is an important matter. Senator Hurley has outlined well why there are serious concerns that need examination. As somebody that has followed immigration issues for quite a few years now, I think it is very timely to have a broader examination of settlement assistance not just for refugees and humanitarian settlers—although clearly assistance to them is important—but also for other permanent residents coming to Australia.

The wider question that now needs to be considered is whether people here on long-term temporary residency visas could also benefit from some forms of assistance. Clearly, people living in the Australian community for a number of years, and many people who start on long-term temporary visas, eventually end up transferring to permanent visas and, at the end of it all, citizenship. It is very much in our country’s interest to make sure that when people first arrive help is available to enable them to adjust as quickly and completely as possible to their new life in Australia. We have had a lot of debate and a lot of comments made by senior government figures in recent times about multiculturalism, citizenship, integration and all those sorts of things. It is an important area to debate. But, as I said in the Senate yesterday, it would be nice if there were at least a consistent and coherent line from the government on these issues.

Frankly, regardless of what you think about multiculturalism and how you define it or other words like ‘integration’ and ‘assimilation’, which do have their baggage, as Mr Abbott has said, I do not think anybody could dispute that it is in our country’s interest to assist people that come here to settle as quickly as possible. That applies especially to refugees and humanitarian entrants, who are most likely to have come from a very disadvantaged situation. In the case of the refugees that are coming from Africa, it is very commendable that the government is bringing a number of refugees and humanitarian entrants from Somalia, Sudan and other countries.

That is very much to be commended, but it is against our country’s interests, and only doing half the job as far as the refugees are concerned, if we bring people here and then do not provide them with the assistance they need to adjust, as with the example of the family of Richard Niyonsaba, the young child who died that Senator Hurley was referring to. You could accurately call it an alien existence for them, to have come from somewhere where they had never seen a telephone, electricity, washing machines, fridges and all those sorts of things to a completely foreign environment. Clearly, it is beneficial to bring them to somewhere like Australia when they have been living in desert refugee camps for years and always at risk of violence or death, but we have to do more than just bring them here. We have to assist them to settle. As I said, that is very much in our self-interest as well as, of course, completing the humanitarian assistance that we are providing.

There is a bit of a habit, perhaps understandable, that occurs in political debate in Australia around these sorts of issues: people just make the statement that Australia has very good settlement services by world standards. I have made that statement many times myself. It is the same as the way we often make the statement that Australia has a proud history of assisting refugees. Because we keep repeating it, we just assume it is true. As perhaps should not be surprising, the reality is not always as simple as that. We actually do not as a country have an unblemished history with regard to refugees, even before the recent and harsh politicisation of that issue in the last decade. We have a mixed history. And the same has to be said about settlement services. We do have some good practices and some good aspects to our record, but we cannot just keep making the bland statement that we do settlement well without actually examining it to see whether we are kidding ourselves. I think we are kidding ourselves to some extent. We do some things well; we do some things better than many other countries. But we do not do them well enough. And there are some things that we do badly and some things that are at risk of deteriorating.

That is why the broader issues in this reference are important. The specific case of what happened to Richard Niyonsaba in that tragedy is something worthy of investigation. But, even if we do not single out that case, the wider issues of settlement assistance, and indeed the information that is provided before refugee and humanitarian visa holders come here, are things that need examining. Often there are changes that can be made at very little or even no cost that can provide great benefit. I believe that by virtue of having just repeated this mantra of ‘we do really well with settlement services’ we have blindfolded ourselves to the fact that these areas need examination and there are some areas where things are in decline.

Those are the sorts of things that need examining. It is imperative to the future strength of this country. It is not just about a humanitarian gesture of making sure we are being as nice as we can to refugees. It is in our country’s self-interest to have the most effective settlement assistance possible, not just for refugees but for anybody that comes to this country for a prolonged period of time. Unless we look at what it means in application, all of the debate and the words that are being thrown around about citizenship, people’s obligations to Australia, Australian values, integration with the Australian community and the role and impact of multiculturalism are a lot of hot air and rhetoric thrown around the ether.

One of the fundamental areas of application of those sorts of issues is in settlement assistance. It cuts across all the philosophical debates about multiculturalism, integration, citizenship and Australian values because, whatever your view on the nuances of those issues, everybody would agree that it is in our country’s interest to assist and help people, when they migrate and settle here, to settle quickly and effectively. There is growing evidence that we are not doing that anywhere near as well as we could and should be. The time is very much right for an examination of this matter. I would be very disappointed if the government could not at least put its position about these issues on the record, because they are crucial to our country.

Immigration issues are not just a political football. I have become more and more aware the longer I have delved into immigration that it is perhaps one of the most fundamental issues for the future of our country. It has played an indescribably huge role in Australia becoming what it is today, and it can continue to play an absolutely pivotal role in where Australia goes in the future. It plays a positive role, I believe. I think it is as important as all of the debates we are having about our tax system, our economy and those sorts of things. We are talking about people, rather than just dollars and cents. Obviously there are links there, as there are with every issue, but it is as important as those debates. We really need to have much more mature debate on these issues and we need to have the government contributing to that in a responsible way.

It is slightly off the topic, but I think it is appropriate to point out that yesterday we heard the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs making further announcements about changes in the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and the way they are doing things in response to more reports from the Ombudsman. The minister did not come into this chamber to present that information; she held a press conference outside. She did not speak to any of the reports that the Ombudsman has provided. The minister is not contributing to this debate. That sort of thing indicates that there is not a sufficient degree of seriousness and willingness to engage with these issues. Sure, there is point scoring in the immigration debate, as there is in every other debate in politics, but there are fundamental issues here that need to be properly examined. They are not being properly examined. This inquiry, I believe, would be a good opportunity to do that. It is the right time.

Today the committee—if it gets a chance to get to it—is presenting a report on the Migration Act and the administration of that act, relevant to some of the issues I have just described. It has nothing else on its plate. It has no reference before it. We have Senate committees now sitting in this parliament with no references because the government is consistently blocking reference after reference. We have already seen one on aviation safety blocked this morning. We will probably have another motion after this, on disability services, which is also going to be opposed. If the government is going to block this one as well, we will have a committee sitting there without a reference. Frankly, I think that starts to bring the Senate as a whole into disrepute. Maybe that is the government’s agenda. Maybe it wants to bring the Senate into disrepute. But it certainly does not serve the community well to have committees sitting here without valuable work to do.

As I have said, this is a valuable area. It is an important area of public policy. A lot of it is beyond and above ideology and political positioning. It is about the fundamentals: good delivery of public policy, good delivery of public resources and providing proper assistance to people who we have welcomed into our country and who we expect to make a contribution to our community. They are people who quite clearly want to do that. History shows us how enormous the contribution is that refugees have made to our country. So we know that the potential is there. This is simply about making sure that that potential is maximised. A little bit of investment at the start can produce enormous benefits for all of us, not least, of course, the people who are assisted. It is time that we look at how well we are doing that and at ways that we can do it better.

Question put:

That the motion (That the motion () be agreed to.