Senate debates

Monday, 26 February 2007

Matters of Urgency

Asylum Seekers

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (Queensland, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I inform the Senate that the President has received the following letter, dated 26 February 2007, from Senator Bartlett:

Dear Mr President,

Pursuant to standing order 75, I give notice that today I propose to move:

“That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The need for the Australian government to unequivocally guarantee that the latest group of boat people, reportedly consisting of 83 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and 2 from Indonesia, will immediately be provided with proper independent assistance, have their refugee claims assessed openly and fairly and will not be subjected to removal to another country until those claims have been fully examined.

Yours sincerely,

(Andrew Bartlett)

Democrat Senator for Queensland

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today’s debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:00 pm

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

I seek leave to slightly modify the terms of the matter of urgency motion in accordance with changes I have given to the various whips.

Leave granted.

I move the motion as amended:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:The need for the Australian government to unequivocally guarantee that the latest group of boat people, reportedly including 83 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, will immediately have access to independent assistance, have their refugee claims assessed openly and fairly and will not be subjected to the risk of refoulment, consistent with our international obligations.

The changes clarify and slightly refine the motion put forward but do not change its substance. This is an urgent matter not just for the asylum seekers who are directly affected; it is also because it is crucial we get this right and send the right signals about what we are doing. The last thing Australia needs is a re-run of the pre-election poison that we had in 2001 regarding the treatment of asylum seekers. This should actually be unremarkable. I hope that the government speakers will indicate their support for it because it is to ensure that these asylum seekers immediately have access to independent assistance, have their refugee claims assessed openly and fairly and not be subjected to the risk of refoulement—that is, being sent back to face potential persecution. It should not be necessary to put this forward, but we have seen in the last week, since the boat of asylum seekers was first detected, a lot of very strong reminders of the 2001 approach of this government.

There has been a lot of talk in the last year or two about a culture change. Indeed a lot of money—millions of dollars—has been put in by this government to effect a culture change in the department of immigration. As I and the Democrats said repeatedly at the time, unless you change the law and the policy of this government, with all of the other things, you are not going to have a genuine culture change. I fear we are witnessing that being demonstrated at the moment, and that will make all of those millions of dollars for the so-called culture change of the immigration department a waste of money.

We are seeing, once again, the government restricting access to information and preventing easy access to the asylum seekers for those who would provide them with advice. We are seeing a dribble of propaganda from the minister and, even more extraordinarily—and which goes further than even what we saw in 2001—we are seeing immediate consultation with other governments and commentary from ambassadors from Sri Lanka, the country that the majority of the asylum seekers are said to have fled from. They are involved, in the loop in some way, with what happens to these people. That is even further down the wrong path than what happened in 2001. Of course, these people’s claims need to be assessed before we can say whether or not they have valid claims of persecution, but there should be no doubt at all that it is a reasonable prospect that these are genuine claims, given that they are reportedly from Sri Lanka and given that quite a number of them are reportedly Tamils.

I draw the Senate’s attention to the position of the UNHCR—that is, the United Nations refugee agency—on the international protection needs of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka which was issued just in December last year. I remind people that this is a country in serious civil war; the ceasefire has broken down. Just last year there were 17 national staff members of the French humanitarian aid organisation, Action contre la Faim, killed in their office. The assessment of the UNHCR, particularly with regard to Tamils from the north and east, where some of these people are reportedly from, is that Tamils in and from these regions are at risk of targeted violations of their human rights from all parties to the armed conflict—from government forces, the Tamil Tigers and paramilitary or armed groups. They can be attacked for being seen to support the government and they can be attacked for being seen to not support the government. It has been shown there is nowhere for them to hide safely anywhere within the country. The UNHCR specifically says:

All asylum claims of Tamils from the North or East should be favourably considered.

It says that even where the individual does not fulfil the precise refugee criteria under the 1951 convention a complementary form of protection should be granted in the light of the prevailing situation. It goes on to say:

No Tamil from the North or East should be returned forcibly until there is significant improvement in the security situation in Sri Lanka.

That should be the starting point for our government when looking at the situation. They should not immediately be floating talks about sending them across to Indonesia, which is not a signatory to the UN convention. Asylum seekers who were sent to Indonesia five years ago by this government are still there today, languishing in limbo in places like Lombok and Jakarta, being paid for by the Australian taxpayer. That is a breach of our international obligations. We have our government again talking about doing the same thing to people from a country where we know, from the latest evidence from the UNHCR, they are at serious risk. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled. This an urgent problem. (Time expired)

4:05 pm

Photo of Brett MasonBrett Mason (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Any suggestion that Australia would agree to an arrangement which would see refugees returned to a country where they face persecution is wrong. Citizens of other countries who are persecuted by their governments should, in an ideal world, always find safe haven. This country has a very proud record of that, particularly since the Second World War. After revolution in places like Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and after the Indochina war, this country took many refugees—I might add, despite Mr Whitlam’s objection to taking Vietnamese refugees. Under Mr Fraser, this country did take them, and it was one of the best things we have ever done as a community.

At present throughout the world there are millions of people who are homeless and many millions of people dislocated by war. There are refugees on nearly every continent. I remember back in the early nineties when I was working with the United Nations on the Thai-Cambodia border I spend much time among them. Many of those refugees wanted to live in Australia—and, indeed, many do.

In this country we take about 13,000 refugees each year from all around the world, and that makes us perhaps one of the most generous receivers of refugees in the world on a per capita basis—about second behind Canada, I think. My friend Senator Bartlett mentioned Nauru and offshore processing. There might be some objection taken about the time it took to process some of those people, but in the end everyone’s applications were processed—the vast majority successfully—and they were dealt with fairly. There has been no objection about the process undertaken in Nauru. But there is a problem when people arrive by boat. Why? Because a business has been spawned: people-smuggling. It is a business that imperils desperate people on the open sea and lines the pockets of money-hungry people smugglers. People smugglers prey on the poor and the very desperate. They have done it for years and continue to do it. This government is committed to maintaining a strong and determined focus on protecting our borders and ensuring that Immigration, Customs, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian armed forces combine to do just that.

I think it would be useful to go back in history and look at how many individuals arrived by boat in the years prior to Australia’s tough border security policies, in particular on offshore processing. How many people fell prey to people smugglers before the new arrangements—in particular on offshore processing—came into force? It is good to report to the Senate that there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of unauthorised boat arrivals. The people-smuggling business has fallen on very hard times since the Howard government adopted tough policies against unauthorised immigration. The figures speak for themselves. In 1999 there were 3,722 unauthorised arrivals by boat in Australia; in 2000 there were 2,939; and in 2001 there were 3,751. In this regard 2001 is an important year because that is the date at which the Howard government’s offshore processing policy came into force.

What were the effects of these measures? What sort of impact did these policies have on this particular dark form of human trafficking? Until this time, each year there were on average 3,000 to 3,500 people arriving on our doorstep. I remember the debate in the party room, in the parliament and in the public. It was all about how terrible the offshore processing would be—that it would undermine our obligations under refugee conventions and that it would undermine our human rights obligations. There was enormous discontent throughout the community. But what has happened? In 2002—and that was the first calendar year after the Howard government’s measures went into effect—the number of unauthorised arrivals by boat in Australia fell to zero—yes, zero. So we had, on average, over 3,000 in the previous three years—in total about 10,000 unauthorised arrivals. In 2002, the year after the new policy came into effect, there were zero. So no people struggling across the ocean were taken advantage of by people smugglers—no people putting themselves and their families at risk; no people falling prey to people smugglers—unlike the three previous years when 10,000 people did so. In 2002 there were zero. Is that because desperation throughout the world was somehow eclipsed? No. It was simply because this government put on record the fact that it would not allow people smugglers to succeed. It has been one of the most successful border protection policies of this government. It has been a marvellous achievement.

I must say, though, we do not get much credit for it—for the lives that the government saved by people not putting themselves at risk across the open seas; for saving the poor and the desperate from the clutches of people smugglers. We did not receive any gifts from the opposition, the Greens or the Democrats for that. No—we were seen as heartless. And yet, when that policy came in, there were no people placing themselves or their families at risk from people smugglers—not one in 2002. Those lower numbers mean lives were saved, because the people-smuggling criminals care not a whit about the wellbeing of their cargo. Anything that might encourage this form of human trafficking would constitute a subversion of our policy’s purposes and a perversion of its moral intent

Anyone who is the subject of persecution by their government deserves the protection of other countries. It has been a very proud record of the coalition—and, indeed, in many cases, the Australian Labor Party—of protecting those people. I cannot help but think that this country has done so much to protect refugees throughout the world since World War II. As we speak, people are being processed in refugee camps throughout the world and they will be resettled here in Australia. We do not do it because it necessarily serves our national interest in the immediate sense. We do it because it serves humanity’s interest, and it does. That is why we do it. In conclusion, the people smugglers who exploit the hopes and dreams of impoverished people are criminals, pure and simple. It is Australia’s humanitarian responsibility to do what it can to stamp out that trade, and we should do it.

4:14 pm

Photo of Joe LudwigJoe Ludwig (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Maybe Senator Mason believes in the speech he just gave, and it may be relevant at some time. Unfortunately, it is not relevant to the urgency motion that is before us today. That urgency motion, provided for under standing order 75, contains three major points:

The need for the Australian government to unequivocally guarantee that the latest group of boat people, reportedly including 83 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, will immediately have access to independent assistance, have their refugee claims assessed openly and fairly and will not be subjected to the risk of refoulement, consistent with our international obligations.

That is what the debate in the chamber is about. What Senator Mason went to—and I took very careful note of what he said—consisted of reliance on the government’s record. That might be something that Senator Mason wants to trumpet, but the Labor Party does not, because that record harks back to ‘kids overboard’ and the deceit surrounding that. As far as I can see, to date this government has only put out one press statement dealing with this issue, titled ‘Group transferred to Christmas Island’ and released on 24 February 2007.

Senator Mason did not go to that in any detail other than to make the sweeping statement in his opening remarks that he agreed that people should not face persecution and that it is wrong to return people to countries where they would. I agree with that: it is wrong. Then Senator Mason went on to a range of other matters which are not related to the motion although worthy in other debates. It is true that many refugees have settled in Australia and that Australia openly embraces them. The Labor Party agrees with all of those sentiments. It does not agree with offshore processing—that is clear.

There is a problem, though, with Senator Mason’s speech in that he did not go to the issue at hand—I will point out why. Although this motion relates specifically to the group of Sri Lankan asylum seekers that are now on Christmas Island, in the absence of the full details of their circumstances this debate really goes to the principles of how we process claims for asylum. Labor has sought a briefing from the government on the specific circumstances of this group of asylum seekers which will take place later this afternoon. But the Howard government have form in this area. Their form is deception and misinformation. Earlier I mentioned the ‘children overboard’ affair, where the then Minister for Defence produced photographs in the middle of an election campaign, stating that they depicted children who had been thrown into the water by their parents. So, when we examine the issues, we must constantly remind ourselves of just how little credibility the public statements by the government have—that everything they say must be taken with a grain of salt and viewed through that prism.

Labor’s principles in this debate are clear: Labor want to see people smugglers prosecuted to the full extent of the law. So, to the extent that Senator Mason diverged into the area, we agree. We do not want them to be given a second shot at smuggling people into this country and we do not want to see refugees returned to a country where they face persecution. We agree on that. Most of what we now know about this matter, though, comes from reports in the media. I was hoping Senator Mason might have been able to contribute on some of the issues actually relevant to the debate. But the government has not, and perhaps the government’s second or third speaker in this debate might be able to contribute some factual details of the circumstances, or at least provide a little more than the minister has to date.

As I said, the minister has made some public statements on the issue; they are far from complete, and his last formal statement was the press release of two days ago that I mentioned earlier. This is what he has told us: 85 people were intercepted by HMAS Success on 21 February, 83 claiming to be Sri Lankan and two claiming to be Indonesian. We know that the group has been moved to Christmas Island for health checks and information gathering. We know that the government is considering a range of options for the handling of this group. But there remains plenty that we do not know. Hopefully, the remaining government speakers will not do what Senator Mason did but will in fact provide some of the answers. We cannot know what options the government is considering. We can only speculate about what the claims of these asylum seekers actually are. So it would be helpful if the government could provide information on the options it is considering and the claims of the group.

At present there do remain conflicting accounts about the details and circumstances surrounding this group of asylum seekers, and Labor wants the government to clear the air. You have the opportunity to provide some of those answers today. You can lay all the facts of these issues on the table here and in this afternoon’s briefing. Labor will be seeking a complete chronology of the events, such as the interdiction, the origin of the ship, the current circumstances on the processing and the current state of negotiations. The government must fill in the blanks on those questions as well as the many others that surround this group of asylum seekers.

Let me reinforce the principles which underpin Labor’s approach. We do not want to give people smugglers a second shot. Labor want to see people smugglers prosecuted to the full extent of law. The government must make sure that its policy does not see people smugglers set free to breach our borders again. At the same time, we must make sure that we meet all of our international commitments in this area. In particular, Labor do not want to see refugees returned to countries where they face persecution. Labor want to see effective international cooperation to fight people-smuggling and strong penalties for criminals who engage in this despicable action.

It can only be Mr Kevin Andrews and Mr Downer who would allow the debate to date to continue without the full facts. There is an onus on the government to provide the circumstances that surround this issue, because otherwise you end up with various reports in various papers about what the circumstances are, which does not help the debate here. It certainly does not help the people who are being processed, and it does not help this government’s prosecution of the issue.

It has been reported that Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Indonesia said Australian and Indonesian officials had told him the asylum seekers would be sent to Jakarta and then returned home. He expected the men to arrive in Sri Lanka within days. Australia and Indonesia had said they would help with the repatriation, he said. In their statement, of course, Mr Andrews and Mr Downer said the government would not allow the refugees to be returned to a country where they faced persecution. It went on to say that, while the government is considering its options, clearly no action would be taken which would breach our international obligations.

But this type of speculation continues. It is not the media that are speculating; it is Mr Downer and Mr Andrews who are allowing the speculation to continue. They can bring it to a conclusion quite easily and provide the information as to what the circumstances are. Therefore, we can have a situation where we get proper and appropriate media comment and reporting of the issue. Instead, to date, we have heard from the government a potted history and a slightly one-sided view of the history of people-smuggling, and offshore processing more particularly. (Time expired)

4:24 pm

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Greens support this motion. I express at the outset the enormous anxiety that I have for the 85 people who are now on Christmas Island, and in particular the 83 Sri Lankans. In the three minutes I have, let me refer to the recommendations on this matter in the briefing document of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees:

... UNHCR recommends that all asylum claims of individuals from Sri Lanka be examined carefully under fair and efficient refugee status determination procedures.

…            …            …

All asylum claims of Tamils from the North or East should be favourably considered. In relation to those individuals who are found to be targeted by the State, LTTE

that is, the Tamil forces—

or other non-state agents, they should be recognized as refugees under the criteria of the 1951 Convention, unless the individual comes within the exclusion criteria of the 1951 Convention.

The following is addressed to states, not parties, to the 1951 convention—that is, Indonesia and Nauru:

Where states are not parties to the 1951 Convention and do not have refugee status determination systems, individuals originating from Sri Lanka and who are in need of international protection, as indicated above, either because of a wellfounded fear of persecution in the meaning of Article I(A)2 of the 1951 Convention, or because of a situation of generalized violence with no internal flight alternative, should be protected against forcible return, and be permitted lawful stay as well as possibilities to exercise their basic rights under relevant national laws until the situation in Sri Lanka improves substantially.

How, in the face of that, could we be arranging with the Sri Lankan Ambassador to Indonesia—and I draw the government’s attention to questions I have put on notice about that particular ambassador and his background—for the potentially illegal repatriation of these asylum seekers? It would be an outrageous thing for the government to do. They should be brought within Australia’s immigration laws and given the rights that are available under those immigration laws. Otherwise this country will not only be breaking international law; it will be turning its back on the very basis of United Nations protection for refugees fleeing violent and potentially deadly situations. Are we going to feed these people back into a situation where disappearances and 4,000 deaths have occurred in the last year in a very violent and bloody conflict? (Time expired)

4:27 pm

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is always very difficult when we have situations such as this, where we have these men attempting to get through to Christmas Island. I am sure that many Australians feel very concerned to know that somebody from another country is in such difficulty that they are trying to find a way forward. This happens not only in difficulty; sometimes it is just because they feel the need to change their geographic location. There are many reasons why this nation has to deal with people who are attempting to arrive illegally by boat.

I refer to one of the previous speakers. I think it was quite right for Senator Mason to outline the government approach to these issues, because it is very important that we take into account and understand why the government approaches these situations as it does. In spite of the fact that Senator Ludwig was at pains to point out that Senator Mason had not directly addressed the question, I think we must look at the overall parameters and the overall environment through which the government approaches these situations.

Those 85 men on board that ship need to be dealt with in the manner that this country sees fit so we ensure the integrity of our borders. I do not think there is anyone around this country who would not want us to find the right balance between doing the right thing by those people on that boat and doing the right thing by the people of this nation. There is an expectation of this government to protect this nation, to ensure this nation is safe and secure and to ensure the integrity of our borders. It is important that we do that. That is our role. As a government, it is our role to ensure the integrity of our borders.

I think it was quite right of Senator Mason to point out the number of arrivals prior to 2001. Not only do I think it was right; it is important to look at that again: almost 10,000 people came to this country by boat in that three-year period from 1999 to 2001, and after the government’s offshore processing laws were in place, as Senator Mason said, that number dropped to zero. That absolute fact supports that what the government are doing is right. We have a humanitarian basis on which to deal with those people who try to get to this country by boat—that they will not be at the mercy of people smugglers. It was the right thing to do. It was the right decision to take. It has given us the right environment in this country to ensure we have that right balance between looking after people who are in genuine need—and this government will never back away from that; we will always assume the responsibility of looking after people in genuine need, and it is very important that we do that—and, by the same token, ensuring the integrity of our borders.

If we look at Labor and what they plan to do, we find their message to the rest of the world would be that Australia’s borders are open, and that we will go back to those days of having 3,792 people in one year, 2,939 the next and 3,751 the next. I do not want to go back to that and I do not think that the majority of Australians do either. We have got it right. We have got the right policies in place, and we can see that we have because they work. While we all feel for those people who believe they need to leave another country for whatever reason—and, as I say, this government will always look after those genuinely in need—this government has a responsibility to the people of this nation to make sure we do not place them at risk. We have to make sure there is a process in place, the right process, to ensure that the people in genuine need are looked after and those who are not have an alternative.

What would we be saying to people smugglers if we went back to the days before 2001 when we did not have the current arrangements in place? We would be saying: ‘It’s open slather. Come on in. Let’s have everybody back. Let’s have thousands of people coming through the doors because that’s okay.’ That is what Labor want to do. They want to open up our borders again. They are not concerned about the integrity we have in place now. That is what we would go back to. I do not believe that is the right thing to do. I do not believe the majority of Australians think that is the right thing to do. We have got the right process in place and we have to ensure that genuine refugees will be looked after.

For these 85 men who have, through whatever circumstances, taken the decision to try and arrive by boat, a range of options will be looked at. While we are hearing from the other side, ‘We want to know now,’ this happened a few days ago and the government are right to take the time to look at the range of options for these people. We would be irresponsible if we did not do that. We are not standing up here in this place saying to Labor: ‘Yes, of course we will answer your questions straightaway. Absolutely. Here’s all the information. This is what we’re doing.’ That would be irresponsible. The responsible thing for this government to do is to ensure that we look at all the options and that we get the right outcome. It is about a balance, as I said earlier. It is about helping those genuinely in need. We will never back away from that. That is what our policy entails and that is what it takes into account. But it also has to be balanced against what is the best thing for this nation. What is in the national interest? What is the right thing to do? The government will consider the range of options that we need to look at. We will do that thoroughly and exhaustively. We will not be pushed by the other side to run to their agenda and their timetable. We will do the right thing by these men to ensure that they get the best possible outcome.

4:35 pm

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this afternoon to provide a contribution to this debate on the motion that has been moved by Senator Bartlett. I understand that Senator Ludwig, who is our spokesperson on immigration matters in this chamber, very clearly said that the Labor Party have sought a briefing this afternoon on this from the government. While Senator Nash suggests that we have demanded answers to questions and postulates that we want to know now, I heard Senator Ludwig less than half an hour ago very clearly put on the record that the Labor Party have been cautious about this and have waited for an opportunity to get a briefing—which is probably occurring as this debate is happening. We have not in fact rushed to press the government into any statements. In fact, I had Mr Tony Burke in Darwin over the weekend and he was quite careful to not make public statements about this. He wanted to be quite assured that the information we were getting was accurate. He did not push to make public statements that were uninformed or ill informed. I think to portray the Labor Party’s position in any other way is disingenuous here this afternoon.

In talking about the issue of refugees and asylum seekers in this country under the Howard government, we would portray it as being under a cloud of deception and misinformation. That is one thing that has been proven—and is in the history books of this country—no more so than by the events of 2001. We all remember the infamous ‘children overboard’ affair when the defence minister at that time produced photographs in the middle of a federal election campaign and, backed by the Prime Minister, wildly claimed that children had been thrown overboard. It being a couple of days before the election, there was not a lot of time to get to the truth of the matter. But from a Senate inquiry, an honest, open inquiry which kept the government accountable—which we can no longer do anymore, but this was back in those days when the Senate was actually able to have inquiries that called this government to account—we did actually find that it was a campaign meant to deceive the Australian public. At the end of the day that inquiry proved that children were not thrown overboard—that in fact that boat was sinking and people were getting into the water to save lives: those of adults and kids.

We know that this government has a reputation for providing the general public with misinformation about what happens in the Immigration portfolio. In recent months we have seen the previous minister for immigration demoted because of the handling of a whole range of cases, such as that of Vivian Alvarez Solon. For myself, I chaired a Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee inquiry into the operation of the Migration Act which uncovered many irregularities. We had the Ombudsman’s report that showed us that things were not up to scratch in the immigration department and that the general public of this country ought to be asking some questions about how we treat not only people who are genuinely seeking to migrate but also refugees in particular.

Senator Nash and other previous speakers have talked about the thousands of people who have travelled here by boat. I also want to place on record that we now know, many years later, that quite a large percentage of them have been found to be genuine refugees, so their claim for refugee status was genuine and honest. In the last couple of days we have seen another group of people arrive by boat, some of whom claim to have come from Sri Lanka and a couple of whom claim to have come from Indonesia. This latest incident raises very important questions. What is this government doing to actually stop the people smugglers who make money out of moving these people from one place to another to the extent that we have seen in the last 24 hours? How effective is any agreement that this government has got with Indonesia? How effective is any operation that is in place to ensure that this does not happen when in fact it is still happening? You would have to assume that it is not as effective as this government would like it to be.

Our position is that the people who make money in this way—out of moving, from one country to another, refugees or people who claim to be refugees—ought to be prosecuted and feel the full extent of the law. They are trading in human suffering, something we do not think is acceptable. Not only that but we do not believe they should be allowed to do it a second time around. If what I read in the papers today is correct—that these people actually flew from Sri Lanka to Indonesia and were there for many months before getting aboard a boat—what are we doing with the Indonesian government to assure ourselves that that boat never leaves the land of Indonesia again and never again travels across the sea to get here? You have to ask yourself: if this is happening again, how successful has the policy been in the past and how effective are our strategies to supposedly ensure that this does not happen and, also, how effective is our cooperation in the international sphere?

Another thing that I think we need to be mindful of is this—and, while we make no comment in this chamber about whether or not people are genuine refugees, we do know this: before that assessment has been made and even after it has been made we need to satisfy ourselves as a country that we do not return people to a place where they believe they will face persecution. We are a signatory to the UN convention on refugees. I might add that Indonesia is not, so that poses a severe, real problem for us as to the way in which we should approach refugees and handle refugees on the international scene, as opposed to the way that Indonesia does. We have signed on the dotted line a document that says we respect the rights of people who are genuine refugees, that we will take them into this country and that, for those who have not been proven to be, we will ensure that we will have a return-to-country assessment.

Our analysis of the Migration Act showed very clearly that this is an area in which the department of immigration needs to improve and that this is an area in which there need to be much more comprehensive checks and balances. We do not want to see refugees returned to a country where they may face damage to their lives. When you hear reports of people having been returned to countries and having been killed, imprisoned or persecuted, you understand that the stakes are extremely high. We have signed a United Nations convention that says that we will take that situation very seriously and that we will do our utmost to ensure that any outcomes for refugees are not frightening, that people are in fact safe, that if are they returned to a country they will not be persecuted. If we get it wrong, people are at risk of losing their lives.

I think the message in this debate is the following until we have further information about this group of people, these 85 men, that we are listening to and dealing with: the smugglers need to be dealt with; they need to face the full force of the law; and we need to ensure that any agreement we have with Indonesia is working, as it would seem that somehow there are boats still slipping through the net. We need to ensure that refugees are not returned to a country in which they feel they will be persecuted, for whatever reason. We need to make sure that our assessment of that is thorough and comprehensive. At the end of the day, we are responsible for people’s lives. We have signed up to an international convention that says we will be mindful of that and we will do all that we can to ensure these people remain safe and remain alive. So we need to ensure that refugees are not returned to a country where they face persecution, where their lives are put at risk. If these people turn out not to be genuine refugees then we need to ensure that we are not sending them back to a place where they may well be harmed or imprisoned or where their lives will be put at risk. (Time expired)

4:45 pm

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You would not know it from the contributions from those opposite, but Australia actually has a very proud reputation for and a proud history of accepting refugees from around the world. We are among the most generous and compassionate nations on earth. In 2005-06 our humanitarian intake was 14,000. This is one of the most generous intakes in the world on a per capita basis. But, even if you put per capita measures aside, Australia is one of the top three nations in absolute terms in relation to its humanitarian intake. We are up there with the US and Canada—nations which are much larger than us. We are one of the top three nations in the world in absolute terms in humanitarian intake.

We are generous, and this is as it should be. We are a prosperous nation; we are a free nation; we should be generous. We have the capacity to take refugees. We also have a moral obligation to do so. And an orderly, fair, equitable and thorough process for assessing claims for asylum, for determining status, is not inconsistent with compassion. In fact, an orderly assessment process is an expression of that compassion.

There are thousands—tens of thousands—of people around the world who would like to move to Australia. For some it is because of a desire for a better economic environment. For others, it is because they are in genuine fear of persecution in their home countries. For others, it is a combination of these reasons. None of these are invalid or wrong or inappropriate reasons to want to seek to come to Australia. We can hardly denounce anyone for wanting to move to what we all believe is the greatest country on earth. We all find it entirely understandable that people want to come to Australia. But to give advantage to those who have the means or the opportunity to gain access to the Australian migration zone is perverse. To give a particular advantage to those who arrive in an unauthorised fashion is to be unfair to those around the world in refugee camps or who apply through Australia’s posts and missions. To give earlier access to immigration processes to those who arrive illegally is actually to demonstrate a lack of compassion for those who apply in more regular ways. To give earlier access to immigration processes to those who arrive illegally is to reward and encourage people smugglers and to put the lives of people at risk.

At this stage, the identities and nationalities of the 85 men intercepted on 20 February have not been positively determined. Eighty-three have apparently identified themselves as Sri Lankan nationals and two as Indonesian nationals. What we have been told is that the boat was first detected by an Orion P3 aircraft on 19 February. The vessel was intercepted, we are told, by HMAS Success on 20 February and at that stage the vessel was not operating. The crew from the Success went onto the vessel and repaired the engine, and after this the vessel moved off but then stopped moving again. Crew from Success again boarded the vessel and observed that further damage had been done to the engine and to the hull. The full circumstances are yet to be determined, but I would just observe that the vessel was not engaged in a commercial activity. Damage was done to the engine and the hull of the vessel, which is a curious thing to do, whether you are a passenger or a member of the crew. It will be interesting to ascertain the full elements of the journey.

The Age quotes Sri Lankan community sources as saying the Sri Lankans flew from Sri Lanka to Indonesia. We have heard mention of Vietnamese boat people. I stand to be corrected, but I do not recall the people fleeing Vietnam jumping on a plane, flying somewhere else to another country then getting on a boat and coming to Australia. They came direct. These people in question here today, according to media speculation, flew to Indonesia. If these people in question did fly, it indicates that Australia was not their first available overseas safe haven.

Australia does have international obligations, which it meets, and a duty of care to people in distress. But it also has a moral obligation to ensure that people are not advantaged who seek to enter Australia in an unauthorised manner. The government is meeting and will meet its obligations in relation to these people. The group of 85 people will be accommodated temporarily on Christmas Island, where health checks will be done and information gathered. We will honour our international obligations and there is absolutely no suggestion on the part of the government that these people, if they are indeed found to be refugees, will be returned to an environment where they could be in danger. That is not something that the Australian government has countenanced or would do.

There is one thing we know: although, at the time of the 2001 election, Labor said there was not a cigarette paper’s difference between their policy on border protection and our own, Labor now have an entirely different policy, and we know that if Labor were in office they would give the green light to people smugglers. We do operate a very compassionate and fair immigration system.

4:51 pm

Photo of Linda KirkLinda Kirk (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in favour of the motion put by Senator Bartlett. We are all aware that the motion has arisen out of the recent circumstances of the 85 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who arrived just off Christmas Island, I think on Saturday. I understand that 83 of them are Sri Lankan asylum seekers and that there are two who are believed to be Indonesian nationals. The difficulty we have here today is that we do not have full details of the circumstances of these individuals. I understand that we, the Labor opposition, have sought a briefing from the government on the specific circumstances of this group of asylum seekers and that this is going to take place later this afternoon; but, as it stands, there is an absence of information that would enable us to fully get our heads around what has occurred. For my part, I am relying on media reports that I have gathered on this matter over the last few days, and it is on that basis that I address my remarks to the chamber today, but it is important to realise that until we are made fully aware of the circumstances—exactly who these people are, where they are from and their individual circumstances—the extent of our knowledge of these individuals is that all of them are adult men.

We are pretty much relying on what has been made available by the government and put into the public domain. When this happens it makes many of us, including me, somewhat nervous because we know that this government has what can only be described as ‘form’ in this area. When the issues of refugees and asylum seekers have been publicly debated, more often than not we have seen nothing from the government but deception and misinformation. It is for this reason that I am hesitant to make remarks until we are made fully aware of the facts—and often the facts are very difficult to garner when we are talking about asylum seeker matters vis-a-vis the Howard government.

All of us would remember the shameful ‘children overboard’ affair when the then Minister for Defence produced photographs in the middle of an election campaign and stated that they depicted children who had been thrown into the water by their parents. At the time many people believed that had occurred, but it was subsequently shown, as a consequence of the long and comprehensive Senate inquiry into the matter, not to have happened. So you can see why one is always somewhat suspicious of information that comes from the Howard government when the subject matter is asylum seekers and refugees. We have to examine these issues as they arise and remind ourselves that there is often little credibility in the public statements that flow from this government in relation to these matters. It is probably best to err on the side of caution and take what is said with a grain of salt rather than relying on the statements that are made.

There are some matters that Labor is very clear on when it comes to asylum seekers, and particularly those who have been trafficked by people smugglers. Labor, contrary to what Senator Fifield said, is adamant that people smugglers be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Those people who take advantage of asylum seekers in order to make a profit, whom we know as people smugglers, really are disgraceful individuals and Labor is absolutely clear that it will not give these people a second chance to smuggle people into this country. We are absolutely clear that these people must be punished and prevented from acting in the same way again. The other thing we are absolutely clear about is that we will not see refugees returned to a country where they face persecution. As you know, this is clearly contrary to the refugee convention. (Time expired)

4:56 pm

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

To summarise, we have heard lots of nice-sounding statements from everybody that under no circumstances would they ever allow somebody to be sent back to somewhere where they face persecution. Most of the Liberal Party speakers, quite rightly, proudly clasped to their bosom the record of the Fraser government and the way they treated asylum seekers who came here. They then proceeded to completely trash the whole approach the Fraser government took and said that anybody who took that approach would be compromising the integrity of our borders, opening the floodgates and giving comfort to people smugglers. They cannot have it both ways. Do they think the Fraser government did the right thing or not? How can they possibly keep saying, ‘We have a proud record, look at what Fraser did,’ and then defend the current policy which is the absolute antithesis of what Malcolm Fraser did and which, as you all know, he is fiercely critical of?

I do not particularly blame the government speakers, because they are being fed totally dishonest propaganda from the office of the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship and his department. Senator Mason said there has been no objection to how people were processed on Nauru. That is ludicrous. There have been extraordinarily severe objections. It is because of those objections that legislation last year which sought to expand the Pacific solution was rejected by the Senate. There is ample evidence that we have sent people back to face persecution and that we have breached these conventions. That is why the Australian Democrats are so concerned that we again have public musings from government ministers. We have the immigration minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs umming and ahing: ‘We might send them to Nauru; we might send them to Indonesia; we’re seeking assurances that they won’t send them back.’ Why are we doing that? Why are we subcontracting something as fundamental as checking people’s claims about persecution—people who are fleeing a civil war? India has 100,000 refugees from Sri Lanka. We get 83 and suddenly we think that our borders are being compromised. It is ludicrous. (Time expired)

Question put:

That the motion (Senator Bartlett’s) be agreed to.