Tuesday, 8 July 2014
Matters of Urgency
I have received the following letter from Senator Siewert:
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:
Is the urgency motion 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.
That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:
I look forward to listening to the debate on the topic over the next hour. I just want to make one clarification because, when this motion was put forward this morning at 8.30 am, the 153 asylum seekers that have been reported in relation to the second boat that we all understand we are debating today were unaccounted for, but, over the course of the day and because the federal government has been hauled in front of the High Court, we now know from confirmation by the federal government to the court that, in fact, 153 asylum seekers remain in custody on the high seas by the government—153 asylum seekers who are frightened, terrified, anxious individuals who wanted to come to Australia to ask for our help and protection, including dozens of children.
The High Court has now confirmed, after hearing the presentations from the federal government, that 153 people are being held in custody, effectively on a prison ship, by the federal government. The people on board this boat have been on the water for over three weeks. Children as young as a few months old and up to 12 years old have been on this boat out in the seas for three weeks and are now being held in custody by the Australian government.
We know that the federal government has not wanted to talk about this matter. We have had weeks of the federal minister, Scott Morrison, saying it was an on-water matter and he was not going to talk about it. We now know the cruel practices this government is up to. Only 48 hours ago the government participated in the illegal transfer of asylum seekers straight into the hands of the Sri Lankan navy, putting those people at very grave risk. Thankfully, because of the court action brought forward today, the fate of 153 people may indeed end up being better than that of the 41 who have already been handed over to the Sri Lankan government, but we do not know and the court will continue that debate over the next hour or two. We await the deliberations of the justice.
It is astounding that for weeks we have been given absolute silence by this government in the face of international condemnation and very serious concern by organisations such as the UNHCR—the lead refugee body in relation to protection matters—saying that this type of treatment of asylum seekers is unlawful and of major concern. The government have not wanted to be up-front with the Australian people about what is going on. Even today during question time the Minister representing the Prime Minister, who is third in line to be the Acting Prime Minister—if Mr Abbott and Mr Truss were out of town, Senator Abetz would be the Acting Prime Minister—stood here and refused to give this chamber of parliament answers to questions in relation to this matter. The government think they are above the law and above the parliament and continue to hold the Australian people in contempt over this issue. The fact is that there are very serious legal and human rights concerns for those people and this government are playing with their lives out on the high seas.
The practice of on-water screening, at-sea assessment, that this government used to send back the 41 asylum seekers—they were handed back to the people they said they were fleeing; that is, the Sri Lankan government—was conducted in under five minutes via teleconference. There is no way that can accord with Australia's international obligations. The government did not want us to know any of this. This is all secret. There is no transparency. If the government were up-front, if they believed that what they were doing was right, then they would not be hiding it, but they continue to hide it. We have heard from family members of those on board the boat of 153 that they are terrified about what is going to happen to their family members if they are indeed sent back to Sri Lanka. Mr Morrison has done nothing but hide from the Australian people and hide the facts from this parliament. He has done nothing but put the fear of God in those who have done nothing more than seek Australia's protection.
What is going on out on the high seas today is Tony Abbott's Tampa. We have a situation where 153 individuals, including children, asylum seekers, say they are in fear of being sent to Sri Lanka and the Australian government are refusing to help them. They are being held on a prison ship out on the high seas and all we get from Mr Abbott as Prime Minister or Mr Morrison as immigration minister is silence, denial and more cruelty. I asked a question during question time today in relation to comments made by the immigration minister during question time some two weeks ago where he told the other place that the government was not just going to stop the boats; they were just warming up—just warming up to trash Australia's international reputation and the lives of individuals who come our way asking for help.
This issue has become so toxic in this country that we are now turning our backs on refugees and handing them back to the people they are running from. That is a clear breach of everything that the refugee convention is meant to stand for. There is a reason that this convention was drafted in the first place. The world hung its head in shame at the end of World War II when countries realised that boatloads of Jews had been turned away at various nation's ports and sent straight back to danger. That is why the world got together and said: 'Never again will we treat people like this. Never again will we allow politics and the lack of decency to overrule basic human rights and respect for human life.' Yet what we have here today is a prison ship being run and overseen by Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott, and the people on board being threatened to be handed straight back to the hands of their persecutors. It is a breach of faith in relation to what Australia does and how it acts in relation to international law, and it undermines the basic standards of decency that Australia has become so proud throughout its history.
What are we so afraid of? Are we afraid to extend a hand of help to those who are asking us just to give them a chance? I am not suggesting for a moment that every person who arrives on a boat is a refugee. What I am asking for is that we stand up for the rule of law and for basic decency and fairness, that we stop playing hide and seek with the lives of children on board these Customs and Navy vessels and that we stop playing with the lives of vulnerable people who have committed no crime, making their way to Australia to ask in desperation for protection. Let us have a process that is transparent, that is open and that is in line with the rule of law. In this place, it is our job as members of parliament to stand up for the basic rule of law to ensure that there is a floor that we will not cross nor go below because people's rights do matter. The protection of refugees is important. (Time expired)
I too rise to contribute to the motion moved by Senator Hanson-Young. In listening to Senator Hanson-Young's contribution, Senator Hanson-Young posed the question: what are we afraid of? Let me tell you what we on this side are afraid of. We are afraid that if we re-implement the policies that Senator Hanson-Young supported for six years in this place, the policies that those on the other side introduced despite our pleas that they do not roll back the Howard government's border protection policies, we will see yet again more people getting on leaky boats; that we will see what occurred under the previous government, where men, women and the children whom Senator Hanson-Young speaks so passionately about in this place were drowning. That is the direct result of the former government's policies.
In excess of 1,200 men, women and children died at sea. I ask Senator Hanson-Young: when those deaths were confirmed, why did she not come into this place on each occasion and give an impassioned speech like she has done today? The answer is that it did not suit her political purposes. We do not want to see any more people put their lives at risk and get on a boat and quite possibly drown, like the more than 1,200 men, women and children who died as a direct result of the policies that Senator Hanson-Young is yet again promoting in this place. I will stand here quite proudly and say that.
In 2007, when the former Howard government lost office, there were four people in immigration detention. The immigration detention network was costing the Australian taxpayer less than $100 million per year. Fast forward to 2013, after six years of the Rudd-Gillard-Greens alliance, where did Australia end up? In excess of 50,000 people came here illegally by boat, in excess of 1,200 people were confirmed to have drowned at sea, and there are in excess of 14,000 people who did not have the means nor the opportunity to leave the UNHCR camps that they have found themselves in for not one year, not two years, but 20 years. That is the number of years that the people who came to my office in Perth were in camps for in the Congo—20 years. And each one of their children was born in a camp. Yet Senator Hanson-Young is prepared to stand up in this place and say that the Greens are prepared to turn their backs—Labor as well, because it was their policies that the Greens supported—on the millions of people who are languishing in UNHCR camps because they do not have the means. Those people do not have the opportunity to get on a plane, to get visas to two or three different countries, to touch down in Indonesia and to pay a people smuggler to come to Australia. This government is not going to do that. We are going to defend those people who are in camps. We are not going to implement policies that discriminate unfairly against those persons.
We took those policies to the 2010 election. There was an overwhelming swing towards the coalition. We took those exact same policies—we made no excuses for our policies—to the 2013 election and the Australian people cast their vote. When it came to border protection, they knew what they were going to get if they voted in favour of a coalition government, and they voted overwhelmingly in favour of a coalition government. You only have to look at the numbers in the Senate today to see that the Labor Party have been reduced to but 25 senators, and they were comprehensively thrown out of the other place. When the Australian people voted on 7 September 2013 they knew what they were voting for, and they overwhelmingly voted for it.
There are two parts to this motion. The second part is in relation to 'the fate of the 153 asylum seekers who remain unaccounted for'. As I said in question time today, senators are aware that this matter is currently before the High Court. I understand that the court may have taken a short break but will be resuming. The Abbott government respects the court processes and we are awaiting the decision of the court. So, in relation to that part of the motion, it would be inappropriate for me to comment any further. But in relation to the first part of the motion—'the Abbott government’s continued secrecy over the interception and transfer of asylum seekers on the Indian Ocean'—there is no secrecy. In relation to on-water matters, again the Australian people knew when they cast their votes for us at both the 2010 and the 2013 federal elections that they were voting for the coalition's policies—not for the failed policies of the Greens and Labor from 2008 until 2013; they were voting for the coalition's policies. These are strong border protection policies. We make no excuses for that. They are saving lives at sea. Since we implemented OSB and turn-backs, we have not lost one life at sea—
compared with in excess of 1,200 men, women and children who drowned at sea—
Senator Hanson-Young interjecting—
under the policies that Senator Hanson-Young so vocally still supports. Again, we have made our operational protocols, our communication protocols, clear to the Australian people, and we have said to them that we will not, for matters of national security, comment on on-water matters.
The fact that today marks the 202nd day since there was a successful people-smuggling venture to Australia shows, I would say, that our policies are working. But, in relation to the secrecy, I refer the Senate to a press release issued by the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, on Monday, 7 July 2014, where he confirmed:
The Australian and Sri Lankan governments have moved swiftly to return a group of 41 Sri Lankan nationals who attempted to arrive illegally by boat to Australia as part of a maritime people smuggling venture.
He goes on to outline for the Australian people exactly what occurred:
The suspected illegal entry vessel (SIEV) was intercepted by Border Protection Command West of Cocos (Keeling) Islands in late June. At no stage was the vessel in distress and all persons aboard the SIEV were safe and accounted for.
He then confirms:
Forty one potential illegal maritime arrivals who were intercepted on the SIEV were returned to Sri Lankan authorities yesterday (Sunday 6 July).
He goes on to confirm:
The 41 Sri Lankan nationals were transferred at sea, in mild sea conditions from a vessel assigned to Border Protection Command (BPC) to Sri Lankan authorities, just outside the Port of Batticaloa.
All persons intercepted and returned were subjected to an enhanced screening process, as also practised by the previous government, to ensure compliance by Australia with our international obligations—
In relation to the claims of secrecy, I would say that the press release that I have in front of me—which I have not read out in full and which contains a lot more information—goes to show that when it comes to on-water matters, you are right: we will, in the interests of national security, maintain our communications protocol. But, as this press release shows, the government has been completely open in relation to these asylum seekers. (Time expired)
In an era of deafening, shrill, dog-whistle politics on refugee issues we well may thank the Constitution for the existence of the High Court, because it would seem that the High Court, being the most respected institution in this country, is at least paying some attention to human rights—a fact that this government has failed to acknowledge. The government's secretive approach to immigration policy has plumbed new depths. The High Court processes are now exposing the extent to which the government has been able to hide from this parliament and from the Australian people its actions in the name of national security. We have seen proceedings involving the detaining of 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers—and I assume now that the government has confirmed the existence of the prison ship which we have alleged has existed for some time now. The government has refused to provide information to this parliament but it is at least being obliged to provide information to the High Court. Today the government has made an undertaking to the High Court that it will not attempt to repatriate the asylum seekers without giving 72 hours notice. This is the first time the government has acknowledged that it has these people in detention. Mr Justice Crennan has accepted the undertaking that the government has made to the High Court and has said that a full bench will hear the case against the government on an expeditious basis.
Yes, of course—I thank the minister for the correction. The government's claim that it is acting within the law may now be fully tested, and the fact that the High Court has decided to hear these matters with a full bench suggests that the government has a case to answer. The barrister representing the asylum seekers, Ron Merkel, says that all of the people in this case are Tamils and there is evidence that they have fled their country to escape persecution. Crucially, he submits that they have received an affidavit from this government that constitutes the first official acknowledgement that it is actually holding asylum seekers. He submits that they are being held at sea by Australian authorities and that the key issue is whether or not the relevant parts of the Migration Act allow the government to hold them within the law. Another member of the asylum seekers' legal team, Mr George Newhouse, commented in an ABC report that the issue is whether Australian law allows the government to hold people in a secret rendition location.
Labor calls on the government to come clean with this parliament and to come clean with the Australian people. We have never accepted that the government should throw away the humanitarian handbook in pursuit of what is nothing more than a political scoreboard. The government is seeking to use refugees for political purposes. In the last parliament, not a day went by when the shadow minister, now the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, would miss the opportunity to make enormous political capital about every boat that he saw coming across the horizon. There was no question then about secret operational matters that could not be discussed with the Australian people; there was no suggestion in the election period that the government was not going to provide basic information to the Australian people and to this parliament. These are all matters that have arisen subsequent to the election.
Serious questions are being asked, and the Australian people have a right to know the answers to these questions. Is this government's claim that it is acting in accordance with our international obligations justified? Criticisms of the government are not just being made in the parliament; they are not just being made by the Australian Labor Party. In fact, 53 of Australia's leading international legal experts released a statement citing their 'profound concern' with reports that asylum seekers are being subjected to rapid and inadequate screening and then promptly returned to Sri Lanka. According to these legal experts, the government's actions have raised a real risk of refoulement, placing Australia in breach of its obligations under international refugee and human rights law, including the 1951 refugees convention, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The fact is that we do not know if the government's claims are correct because they have not been straight with the Australian people and they have not been straight with the parliament. Now they are obliged to be straight with the High Court. The minister, Scott Morrison, must explain the process under which he has acted to determine the refugee status of these applicants. It is simply not good enough for the minister to make an assertion that he is acting within the law—there has to be a clear statement made about what the government is doing and this parliament has to have the capacity to hold the government to account particularly when it comes to the question of its capacity to act within the law.
The government is now asking asylum seekers four questions at sea—an assessment process they claim was the same as that of the previous government. That is not true. It is yet another lie by this government. What we are being told is that four arbitrary questions are being considered to be sufficient to decide whether a person is able to claim refugee status in this country. Legal scholars have noted that 'such summary procedures do not comply with minimum standards on refugee-status determination under international law', and 'holding asylum seekers on boats in this manner also amounts to incommunicado detention without judicial scrutiny.' There are other questions that the minister has to answer, apart from the question about why he constantly lies about operations and the application of refugee status—
I withdraw. The minister has said things which are completely and totally untrue about the way in which the previous government acted on these matters. He has constantly misrepresented the facts, he has been injudicious with the truth and on many occasions he has failed to fundamentally deal with some basic questions. What country information is the government using to assess refugee claims? What is the quality of the information being gathered? Who is conducting these assessments? What are the rights of appeal for applicants? What judicial restrictions were there when the assessments took place? Were the asylum seekers able under our protective mechanisms to have legal representation, and if so from whom?
The fact is that there is no evidence being provided to this parliament to support the government's claim that it is acting within the law. The integrity of our refugee status determination system is significantly at risk by the failure of this government to actually come clean on these issues. The policy of secrecy and duplicity will bring this country into disrepute. The government's actions are clearly for political motives, not for national security motives. The appropriate action would be for the government to bring these asylum seekers to Christmas Island so that a proper and thorough assessment can be undertaken. Under those circumstances, it may well be appropriate to transfer people to Manus Island or Nauru, or to repatriate them. But there has to be a proper legal process to assess their claims for refugee status.
The minister needs to explain why he has neglected to act in accordance with the Regional Settlement Arrangement, which would have provided a much higher level of efficiency. The minister now has to acknowledge the facts in this matter before the High Court of Australia. This is something he has failed to do in this parliament and for the Australian people. We will soon see whether the government's claims to be acting within the law are, in fact, valid. We will soon be able to test the claim that Australia is acting within its international obligations. I look forward to the High Court's deliberations.
I rise today to support this matter of urgency relating to the Abbott government's continued secrecy over the interception and transfer of asylum seekers on the Indian Ocean and the fate of 153 asylum seekers who remain unaccounted for. This is 153 people just like us. This is 153 people who are now in the custody of the Australian government. They have committed no crime. Seeking asylum is not illegal. They have been taken into the custody of the Australian government and they are imprisoned on a ship. We understand that they were intercepted, possibly in the contiguous zone, and then taken onto the high seas. We now have the farcical situation where the Australian government will be supplying that ship on the high seas—presumably from Christmas Island—in the hope that they will be able to send these people back to the people who have persecuted them. Sending the persecuted back to the persecutors is what this government is doing in Australia's name. It is shaming us internationally. People are looking at what we are doing and find it hard to believe that Australia could do it. But they have proof that we have done it because 41 people have been sent back—and, the minute they were sent back, they were put in the hands of the police and security forces in Sri Lanka.
I think it is time Australians had a really good look at what is happening in Sri Lanka and the Abbott government's appeasement of a country where the Rajapaksas are behaving like a dictatorship. They have already impeached their Chief Justice. Sri Lanka is being run as if it were a totalitarian dictatorship. I think Australians would like to know exactly what the relationship between the Liberal Party and the Rajapaksas is. Is it true, for example, that figures from the Liberal Party went to Sri Lanka and assisted in the campaign to have the Rajapaksas elected? I would be interested in hearing from the Liberal Party in Australia whether that is the case.
However, in relation to what their people are being handed back to, I draw the attention of the Senate and the community to a March 2014 report entitled An Unfinished War: Torture and Sexual Violence in Sri Lanka, 2009-2014, which wasauthored by the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales and the International Truth and Justice Project Sri Lanka. It concludes:
Abduction, arbitrary detention, torture, rape and sexual violence have increased in the post-war period. Targeted for these violations are LTTE suspects, or those perceived as having been connected to, or supporters of, the LTTE—
that is, the Tamil Tigers—
The purported aim is to extract confessions and/or information about the LTTE and to punish them for any involvement with the organisation. These widespread and systematic violations by the Sri Lankan security forces occur in a manner that indicates a coordinated, systematic plan approved by the highest levels of government. Members of the Sri Lankan security forces are secure in the knowledge that no action will be taken against them. This report establishes a prima facie case of post-war crimes against humanity by the Sri Lankan security forces, with respect to (a) torture and (b) rape and sexual violence.
Our own Public Interest Advocacy Centre, in their report Islands of Impunity? in the International Crimes Evidence Project, recorded accounts of two Tamil women who were raped during interrogation by the security forces in Sri Lanka in 2011 and 2012. That is what we have sent 41 people back to. They are in the hands of those people right now. As well, 153 others are on the high seas, effectively imprisoned by the Australian government. The only reason they have not be handed over is that the Sri Lankans have not yet picked them up in their ships. The question is whether they will or not—because they have come from India. What arrangement does Australia have with the Sri Lankan government? There is an interchange between the two countries. Does it include people who have been picked up in waters and sent back?
Let us get to this enhanced screening process. Enhanced screening started with the Labor government and we condemned it then. It was an attempt to get around the law. Interestingly, every time it was challenged, the Labor government dropped it because they knew that it would not stand up in the courts. And now we have got enhanced questioning from the Liberal government, in complete and utter violation of international law, with people not being properly represented and four questions being asked. It is a sham of a process and will be seen as such. The matter is now before the courts.
I went to Sri Lanka after the war to see for myself what was going on there. I was so alarmed by what I saw that I have continued to keep a serious count of what is happening. In my office I have a large painting called This is not a white van. It is written in English, in Sinhala and in Tamil. The reason I have it is people I spoke to in Sri Lanka told me people are being disappeared in white vans on a frequent basis. A British report entitled An Unfinished War: Torture and Sexual Violence in Sri Lanka 2009-2014by Yasmin Sooka, the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales and the International Truth and Justice Project in Sri Lanka—states:
The overwhelming majority of the witnesses were 'white vanned', a term now used in Sri Lanka to denote abduction by the security forces.
A quarter of the witnesses reported being abducted and tortured on more than one occasion.
There is still an enormous number of people in the military in Sri Lanka. In the north, people are being dumped back into areas where there is no infrastructure—it was destroyed during the war—and their land is being taken away and given to the military. We have seen shocking abuses of humanity in Sri Lanka by a government where four brothers run the country. They control the media, they have impeached the Chief Justice and they do not allow the kinds of representations that you would expect in a democracy. They are covering up, and allowing, absolute vilification and violence against religious minorities in Sri Lanka as we speak.
Australia did not sign onto the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution in a disgraceful display of appeasement of Sri Lanka; nevertheless, the UN got that resolution through. The Sri Lankan government will not allow the United Nations Human Rights Council to go into the country and have a look at what is happening there, yet our Prime Minister is saying what a jolly good job they are doing in Sri Lanka and how things have improved. I can tell you that things have not improved for anyone who stands up to the Rajapaksa regime. Regardless of whether you are Tamil or Sinhalese, if you stand up to the regime you will be 'white vanned'. That is the reality. We have already heard evidence from one of the 153 people on this boat that the regime had hung him up by his thumbs to force him to confess that he had in some way been associated with the Tamil Tigers.
What sort of country have we become when we have a government that is prepared to send persecuted people back to their persecutors? What sort of country have we become when we violate international law in such a disgraceful way?
I would like to respond to some of the earlier input from Senator Carr before I get to the Greens contribution. Senator Carr, I think, is having a bad day. His question in question time backfired as he sought to criticise the government for things he alleges happened under this government but which in fact happened under the former government. In fact, at that time we saw press release after press release from Chris Bowen about returning asylum seekers to Sri Lanka. Senator Cash started reading some of these out, before the points of order howled her down. But we saw press release after press release highlighting this fact. We saw this hypocrisy on 2 November 2012 from Chris Bowen:
… there are powers available to the government to return people where they do not engage Australia's international obligations—and when appropriate we certainly intend to use them. … We have seen 116 Sri Lankans return home—voluntarily and involuntarily—since 13 August, as people realise that these smugglers only sell lies and false promises about what awaits people in Australia.
Occasionally, the Labor Party, when they were in government, would actually get to the heart of the matter. The problem was that they were never able to manage the policy. I go to the other part of Senator Carr's critique. He claimed that there were political motives here, not policy motives. It is absolutely clear, in the hysterical response, in the misrepresentations from the Australian Labor Party, that it is only about political motives on their part—because, fundamentally, they do not want this policy to succeed. They claimed that it would not succeed. We heard time and time again that we could not stop the boats, that our policy would not work.
The Australian people are far smarter than that, and they see through that. They saw the former government change the policy, and thousands upon thousands of people came to this country. We saw more than 1,000 people drown trying to get here. That is what the Australian people saw under the Labor Party's border protection policies—for what they were. What they have seen since the change in government, since the change in policy, is that this has in fact stopped. The boats have stopped arriving. The drownings have stopped. We are now in a position where we can actually take people from offshore; we could not do that before because we were oversubscribed by people arriving here illegally. That is the fundamental change. Fundamental to that success has been the suite of policies.
The Australian Labor Party would like us to give a running commentary, as they tended to do. They would like us to take the Labor Party prescription, which failed when it came to the protection of our borders. We believe there is a better way, and that is what we are implementing. Lieutenant General Campbell put it well when he talked about why you do not give a running commentary. He said:
I take this responsibility very seriously.
I do not believe in secrecy for secrecy's sake.
The protocols I have established, and which are supported by the Government, for the release of official information related to Operation Sovereign Borders, seek to balance the public's right to know, which I respect, the safety of all involved, which I am responsible for, and the mission which I have been given and which I am determined to achieve.
I say on behalf of the Australian people that Lieutenant General Campbell has done an outstanding job of delivering on that mission.
When we hear the Labor Party and the Greens asking for that running commentary, I would remind them that this is a significant part of what has worked. It was not something that Scott Morrison just plucked out of thin air; it was the best possible advice that he took from the likes of Lieutenant General Campbell. He has followed that advice. He has allowed professionals to get on with the job, and we have seen a change to a very clear message that coming here illegally will not happen anymore.
We have stopped the drownings. We have stopped the boats. Now we have the Labor Party and the Greens wanting our policy to fail. We cannot afford to let this policy fail. All aspects of this policy are critical to ensuring we do not again see the drownings and we do not again see people languishing in camps overseas because they cannot get here because people have greater needs— (Time expired)
The opposition asked questions today of Senator Cash in relation to this very issue. Senator Cash was unable to answer any of the questions that were asked by Senator Carr. Standing orders, as we know, require that a minister be directly relevant in their answers. But she was directly irrelevant in her answers. In fact, Senator Abetz on the ABC's Insiders program last Sunday gave more insight into what the government is or is not doing in relation to this issue than Senator Cash did. Yet she, like Minister Morrison, is a minister responsible for the fate of these 153 asylum seekers.
We have no idea where these asylum seekers are located on this Australian vessel. The High Court has adjourned for today, but we now know that government lawyers have told the High Court that 72 hours notice will be given before these 150 or so asylum seekers held on the Customs ship are handed back to Sri Lankan authorities. We now know that these asylum seekers have 72 hours more—existing somewhere in some waters. We have no idea where they are.
We know that some 37 children are alleged to be on board. Huge concern has been raised by 53 of Australia's international legal experts. The President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, has raised concerns about the fate of those children on board. We know from the statement that has been provided by those 53 legal experts that the government's actions have raised a real risk of refoulement, placing Australia in breach of our obligations under international refugee and human rights law—including the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1996 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
But more than that, there is something immoral about the government's actions here. This is a democracy. We live in a democracy. We act under the rule of law, even though that may not be going on in Sri Lanka—a country which we know has human rights violations. We know from the United Nations Human Rights Council what has occurred since and during the war in Sri Lanka. We operate under the rule of law, yet we are more than happy to send Sri Lankan asylum seekers back to a country that is failing in regard to its own human rights responsibilities, where people are in fear of persecution. That is why the Sri Lankan asylum seekers have left their country; they are fleeing persecution.
Australia is a western country that lives by its rule of law but is willing to send asylum seekers back to a country where they fear persecution. And the Australian government will not even tell its own people where these asylum seekers are and what they are going to do about it, other than what we have found out through the media. We find out a lot more about the government's activities through the media than we do through the government and through question time. They have now given 72 hours notice, continuing to hold these asylum seekers on board. What kind of country are we to treat asylum seekers in this way? We are violating people's basic human rights as well as international law. I am sure this is not the Australia the majority of Australians want to live in.
The other concerning aspect that has come out of this is the integrity of our refugee status determination system, which is at significant risk under this minister. What are they doing about it? They are continuing to hide in secrecy, continuing to not let the Australian people know. There is a father who is pleading with Minister Morrison, desperate to know where his family is. I believe his three-year-old daughter is missing on a boat. This is outrageous— (Time expired)
I rise today to speak to the urgency motion before us on the government's asylum seeker policy. I note Senator Singh's comments that the majority of Australians would not be comfortable with the government's approach to dealing with asylum seekers coming to our country by boat. I would challenge that, because the Australian people were very, very clear about the government's planned policy on how to treat asylum seekers, particularly those who attempt to come to our nation by sea. They were very clear, and the majority of Australians actually backed the government's policy. Australians voted to repeal the carbon tax, get the budget back on track, repeal the mining tax and stop the boats. The international system that we are under is an order that requires—
Senator Hanson-Young interjecting—
fairness so that those who are in camps who have been waiting an inordinately long period of time, Senator Hanson-Young—and there are children in those camps; there are children who are born in those camps—
Senator Hanson-Young interjecting—
there are children who die in those camps—
because the places that we have allocated for them to be able to access are being taken by those people who come illegally to our shores. So the government's policies to address that issue are actually resulting in some good news.
Labor's failed border protection policies resulted in an environment where more than 50,000 people arrived illegally, including more than 8,000 children. More than 1,200 are known to have perished at sea attempting to arrive at our shores on the leaky boats, subject to the people smuggler's offensive business practices—and I will go to that a little later. More than 14,800 visa places that would have gone to people offshore, under the Special Humanitarian Program, were given to boat arrivals under Labor and the Greens, so people waiting offshore in terrible circumstances, often already recognised by the UNHCR and others for a chance at resettlement, were denied the opportunity. Twenty thousand additional places within our refugee and humanitarian program, for special humanitarian visas, have been freed up over the 2013-14 year and the next four years by our ensuring that the places are not taken up by those who come illegally by boat. That is in addition to the 1,000 Woman at Risk places that this government and the minister have made available. For the last six months, over 200 days, there has not been an illegal boat arrival, so those places have been allowed to be taken by men, women and children who are currently already assessed as being asylum seekers and able to take advantage of seeking asylum within our nation's borders.
We are not going to get into a policy of appeasement for people smugglers. We will seek to frustrate them at every single turn. It is a very flexible business model. For instance, in response to government policies, the people smugglers are offering 10 people for the price of nine, or 'buy nine, get one free'—I am referring to an ABC article—and other discounts, multibuy offers et cetera. This is the flexibility and the determination that the people smugglers use in order to prey on very, very vulnerable people in overseas situations. This is the business model we are seeking to break, so that those who are assessed as asylum seekers appropriately under the UNHCR can find safe haven within our shores and seek to build and contribute to our nation and go forward, as so many have previously.
We have heard commentary today about the secrecy of the government, particularly with our Operation Sovereign Borders Joint Agency Task Force. I would argue that the greatest way we can actually address— (Time expired)
I rise to speak on the urgency motion moved by Senator Hanson-Young in relation to the government's secrecy on asylum seekers. I would put it to the parliament that the coalition government never intended to give us anything more than a three-word slogan in relation to asylum seekers and refugees. In fact, their farce on this whole issue began with another three-word slogan: three-star general—who, it would appear, had a very short chain of command and, indeed, a very short-lived campaign. Despite the fanfare of military uniforms, flags and yet another slick three-word slogan—Operation Sovereign Borders—Australians were not impressed with Minister Morrison's weasel words and not impressed with the shroud of secrecy over what was being done in our names.
In January, a new offensive of secrecy began. The three-star general was scrapped, the briefings by Minister Morrison were scrapped and we moved to an 'as needs' basis. That is what we were told—when the government deemed that we needed to know something, they would tell us. Well, surely we have reached that point now. There is a need for the Australian public to be informed by its government of what is being done and what has been done in our names. Our interest is not idle curiosity, as the PM claimed; nor is it shrill or hysterical, as Minister Morrison claimed.
The facts are: we have no idea what is going on, and that is exactly the position the government wants us to be in. It has not demonstrated one shred of humanity or decency in its treatment of those seeking asylum. What happened to those 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers? How is it that they were turned over on the high seas to the Sri Lankan authorities?
And now we hear—not through the government, not through Minister Morrison or indeed the Prime Minister informing us, but through the media—that those asylum seekers may face charges and even jail. Where are the others? Did they even leave from Sri Lanka or did they depart from India? What will happen to them? Today, thankfully, because of the actions of the High Court, the Australian public has been brought up to speed. But what a disgrace. Where is the government in this? It is continuing to hide behind secrecy. That is its policy: its harsh treatment of asylum seekers, its continued demonisation of asylum seekers somehow jumping queues that do not exist and somehow taking humanitarian places that would have gone to others. The government is simply trying to demonise, hide and remain in an absolute cover of darkness over asylum seekers.
Do you know what? It is not the 1950s and, thankfully, media communications have moved on. It is not possible for the government to keep this a secret anymore. If the government will not tell us, then the media, the High Court or someone else will. Maybe the Indonesian government will make announcements, as it has done in the past. But the secrecy of this government, its failure to answer questions here in the Senate and in the other place, is a disgrace.
We have to ask: what is the government doing in our name that it cannot make public? What is going on? I can only conclude that it must be inhumane. What the government is doing is inhumane on all levels. Its treatment and demonisation of those seeking refuge from troubled areas is a disgrace. And how many children are floating in the ocean? How many children are there? We do not even know. What will happen to them in the next 72 hours? The government gave an undertaking in the High Court about that. Again, no information from the government—absolute secrecy. It is a disgrace and the Australian public will not be fooled.
Question agreed to.