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Coalition attempts to excise Australian mainland from migration zone

Posted August 10, 2006

Mr BOWEN (Prospect) (10.17 a.m.)?In 1951 the United Nations convention for the protection of refugees came into force. The world realised the mistakes of the 1930s, when many Western nations turned their backs on Jews fleeing persecution in Germany. Collectively, we said, ?Never again.? I am sure that all of us involved in public life would like to think that we would have done the right thing in those circumstances and stood up for those facing the worst of circumstances, regardless of whether it was popular or unpopular. If the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006 passes the parliament today, it will be the day that Australia turned its back on the refugee convention and on refugees escaping circumstances that most of us can only imagine. This is a bad bill with no redeeming features. It is a hypocritical and illogical bill. If it is passed today, it will be a stain on our national character. The people who will be disadvantaged by this bill are in fear of their lives, and we should never turn our back on them. They are people who could make a real contribution to Australia.

This bill represents an extension of the so-called Pacific solution, in which we saw individuals who were processed offshore being treated differently from those processed in Australia. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs said in his second reading speech that the offshore processing system had preserved ?Australia?s strong commitment to refugee protection?. He is wrong. Let us take a look at how the Pacific solution has worked in practice. This bill extends the Pacific solution, so it is legitimate to look at how it has worked up until now. Firstly, we have seen families of refugees broken up?callously and in contravention of the refugee convention. Spouses of people who have been recognised as refugees in Australia received correspondence from the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, which has been reproduced by Michael Gordon in his excellent book Freeing Ali . It states:

Your claims have been assessed separately from your husband?s claims because you travelled at different times. Under the conditions of your husband?s stay in Australia he is not able to sponsor you. Like all refused asylum seekers you cannot remain in Nauru indefinitely. You should consider voluntary repatriation now.

What a callous piece of correspondence. I agree with Michael Gordon, who said of that letter:

There was only one conclusion to draw: if you wanted to be reunited with your husband, whose fear of persecution if he returned had been judged to be well founded, your only choice was to return and to convince him to leave Australia and confront the very danger he had fled.

Of course, several asylums on Manus Island and Nauru have had their applications rejected three, four or five times, only to have the government eventually accept their claims. Unlike people processed onshore, people processed offshore have no access to professional assistance. It is hard enough for a well-versed Australian native to understand Australia?s immigration system, let alone somebody with obvious language difficulties who is attempting to come to grips with the massive change in their circumstances. Of course, asylum seekers offshore have no right of appeal to higher authorities. McAdam and Crock highlighted the importance of this in an article in the Australian on 15 May. They said that between 1993 and 2006 the refugee tribunal overturned 8,000 determinations by departmental officers to refuse asylum. Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat will not have this right of appeal if this bill is passed.

Asylum seekers have been encouraged?pressured?to return to the nation they are fleeing when their applications are rejected. The government made it very clear to asylum seekers that, if their application were not successful, they would be involuntarily returned to the country they were fleeing. Some stayed and fought and eventually had their applications approved. Others were returned to their homeland. The results of this are outlined in a report by the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence entitled Return to danger and in a report by the Edmund Rice Centre, which other honourable members have referred to. I cannot vouch for those examples?I am not qualified to say whether they are true or not?but if just one of them is true it damages Australia as a nation.

The biggest problem is that, even if an asylum seeker overcomes all these obstacles and has their application for refugee status accepted, there is no guarantee of a visa to settle in Australia. Someone who makes it to the Australian mainland and has their case as a refugee accepted may not be able to gain a protection visa in this country, and that is a national disgrace. This is something that the government wishes to gloss over; there was no mention of it in the second reading speech to the bill. I must say, for such a major and important piece of legislation to receive the cursory treatment that this bill did in the second reading speech by the parliamentary secretary is an insult to the parliament and to the Australian people. The lack of speakers on this debate from the government side is also insulting.

I also note that this morning the government gagged this debate?the most important debate that we have seen in many years. The government has gagged the debate such that every government member wishing to speak on the bill was given the opportunity to do so but while there are still many opposition members wishing to speak. I am sad that Liberal members on the other side voted for that gag motion.

The parliamentary secretary did at least acknowledge one point in his second reading speech. He acknowledged that this bill was brought about by the granting of asylum to a group of refugees from West Papua. While the government recognised the link, they have not admitted the full story. The government first embraced the Pacific solution for crass electoral reasons, but they are extending the Pacific solution for reasons of crass international appeasement. I happen to think that our relationship with Indonesia is one of our most important. I have spent time in Indonesia. It is a wonderful country and it has made remarkable democratic progress in recent years, but our relationship must be one of mutual respect. In Australia that means respecting the Indonesian legal system, even when we do not like the way some of our own nationals are treated, but Indonesia must respect our system of dealing with asylum seekers. The Howard government changing our system to suit the concerns of another nation is nothing short of a disgrace. The Prime Minister is selling out our national sovereignty. This tragic and discriminatory policy does not come cheap. Taxpayers are paying for the maintenance of offshore detention centres at the cost of $3 million to $4 million a month. They are much more expensive than detention centres in Australia. We have the worst of all worlds?an expensive, discriminatory and tragic policy.

Let me turn to the illogical and hypocritical nature of this bill. In his second reading speech the parliamentary secretary stated that it is ?incongruous? that asylum seekers who arrive by boat to excised areas are treated differently to those who arrive by boat to the mainland. But he did not say that it is incongruous that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are treated differently to those who happen to arrive by aeroplane. The government is claiming that the whole rationale of this bill is to fix an illogical outcome?that asylum seekers should be treated the same regardless of where they land. We say that asylum seekers should be treated the same regardless of how they land. We say they should be dealt with fairly, swiftly and on Australian soil.

The government has not changed the situation for asylum seekers arriving by means other than boat, because that is how, in almost every circumstance, asylum seekers from Indonesian arrive. In his contribution, the honourable member for Mitchell talked about the different ways asylum seekers are treated depending on where they are. His contribution suggested that this bill would end that situation?that now asylum seekers in camps in Africa would be treated the same as those who arrived on the Australian mainland. Of course he is wrong. They will not be treated differently if they happen to arrive by aeroplane?if they happen to be able to afford an aeroplane ticket.

The convention on refugees says clearly:

The Contracting States shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin.

This bill contravenes that convention because it treats people differently in Australia depending on what part of the world they have come from and how they arrive. In 2003-04, 1.5 per cent of people seeking asylum in this country arrived by boat. On 9 May 2006 Minister Vanstone stated that unauthorised boat arrivals in the last four years represented three to four per cent of all unauthorised arrivals. So this bill, which the government claims is so necessary to protect our borders, will deal with a maximum of four per cent of unauthorised arrivals in Australia. It is so clearly a sop to international appeasement that I cannot believe government members can come into this House with a straight face and argue otherwise. Far from removing illogicality, the government has embraced it.

In the wake of the Tampa incident, the then Minister for Defence gave instructions that asylum seekers should not be humanised. He instructed that no images be presented, no stories told and no facts relayed which gave a human dimension to the people in such desperate circumstances as the Tampa asylum seekers. He did not want the Australian body politic infected with the view that these people were somehow normal human beings escaping persecution. But, of course, they are human beings and the government cannot stop their stories being told.

I suspect there are government members in this House who will vote for this legislation today but have never met a refugee or talked to them about what they have been through. Of course, some government members have acknowledged great empathy for refugees, and I acknowledge their courage, but I suspect that there are some opposite who had never looked a refugee in the eye. There are few more uplifting experiences than to meet a refugee who has made their home in Australia and is making a contribution to this nation. I met a young Vietnamese woman at the Education Week celebrations in Fairfield a few weeks ago. She came to Australia by boat with her family in 1993. When she arrived she did not speak English. She is now studying medical science at the University of Sydney. She gave a speech at the Education Week celebration about what Australia and its public education system has done for her. She will be giving back to Australia much more than what Australia has given her.

There is also the young man, Zaya Mohamed, who escaped from Afghanistan and attended Holroyd High School in my electorate. He did not know whether his family was dead or alive; he escaped alone. When he arrived, he did not speak English. His schooling had been interrupted and he was hardly literate in his own language. But Zaya did the HSC last year with a view to studying information technology, and a more delightful man you could not hope to meet. It is people like this to whom the government is trying to send a message?the message that they are not welcome.

Not all people seeking asylum in Australia are genuine. Not all deserve to have refugee status, and not all deserve to be granted visas. But what they are entitled to is a fair process, and they are entitled to a swift process. They are entitled to have their claims considered in Australia, and if they are granted refugee status, they are entitled to a refugee protection visa from Australia. This bill denies them those rights.

If this bill is passed, the so-called softer edge which the government put into the detention regime last year, under pressure from a few members opposite and from this side, of course, will be replaced by an edge of barbed wire. Children will be back in detention. The amendments proposed by the government do not stop that. The amendments are, in my view, particularly weak. The amendments talk about taking all reasonable steps to encourage other countries to provide suitable accommodation for children. The amendments call for all reasonable steps to work with another country to uphold the principle that children should be in detention only as a last resort. This parliament cannot pass a law that tells Nauru what to do. Amending this bill is like putting lipstick on a pig. You can put all the lipstick you like on it but it will still be a pig. You can amend this bill all you like but it will still be a bad bill.

What future is there for children in detention? We hear a lot about how important it is to read to our children, to ensure that they are nurtured and to ensure that they have access to resources for a much better chance at life. What future are we delivering to these children? What message will we be sending to them? How will they feel about Australia?an Australia that kept them in detention in their early years? We can only hope that they realise that it is this government that is making them unwelcome, not this nation.

I appeal to the better angels of the nature of those opposite. Some have already expressed their unwillingness to support this legislation. Labor alone cannot defeat this bill. Labor, together with a principled and courageous stand by some members opposite in this House and in the other place, can defeat this bill. It is, as I said, a bill with no redeeming features. We will oppose this bill, and I call on members opposite to join us. If it is passed, it will be repealed by an incoming Labor government. Decency and self-respect as a nation would demand nothing less.

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Comment Helen Lewers (June 14 2011, 10:27 AM)
Dear Minister - these expressions of your humanity seem now to be entirely lost from your psyche. How sad you you, and how sad for refugees and asylum seekers!
Comment James Fehon (August 08 2011, 2:56 PM)
Let's see the principled and courageous stand called for here taken by the Minister now. I want to live in a decent and self-respecting nation.

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