Apr 13, 2000

Adjournment – Refugees – Kosovo

ADJOURNMENT – Refugees: Kosovo

13 April 2000

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (12.40 p.m.)—I am pleased to have the opportunity to place in a broader context the current display of hard-heartedness by the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs over the Kosovar refugees. The minister’s decision to refuse to allow the Kosovars to stay in Australia any longer is unnecessarily harsh, especially given the fact that they are returning to a region that remains unstable. The minister would be well advised to take heed of Mr Bernard Kouchner, head of the UN’s mission in Kosovo, who has urged the Australian government not to force the Kosovars to return home against their will. This would also be consistent with the actions of the governments of the United States, Canada and New Zealand. On AM this morning it was reported:

There is growing concern in Kosovo about the return of refugees and the strain a large uncontrolled influx this year could cause to efforts to establish stability.

Mr Kouchner has stated:

… to force people to come back … is not the normal international procedure at all.

But then this is not a government that shows any respect for international obligations or procedures. In fact, the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs has recently called for the UN to toughen its convention on refugees. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Mr Ruddock’s actions since he came to office in March 1996.

In the last six months the minister has embarked on a crusade against asylum seekers in Australia. Twelve months ago we were opening our hearts to refugees escaping the violence and tragedy of Kosovo. A few months later an increased number of asylum seekers began arriving by boat in northern Australia and suddenly these refugees are being branded as illegals and queue jumpers who have criminal associations.

News has also come that a boat carrying some 220 people that left Indonesia in late March has gone missing with those on board feared drowned. A spokesman for the minister is reported as stating that no search has been mounted. He said:

Where do you look … it’s a big ocean, and after two days the boat could have been anywhere.

The minister would have the Australian people believe that asylum seekers boarding such boats have made a lifestyle choice and have decided that Australia sounds like a nice place to live. This could not be further from the truth. These boats are not luxury cruise liners. Peter McGovern, whose job it is to blow up these boats upon arrival, has described them as `atrocious’.

Last year, 24 people drowned and there were several rescues. These are desperate people. I have no sympathy whatsoever for the people smugglers but the government’s rhetoric has targeted the people who are seeking asylum. Now the tables have turned on the Kosovars as well. They are being referred to as illegals when only days ago they were refugees. They should at least have their cases considered on a case-by-case basis.

The issue of how Australia should deal with onshore asylum seekers is a complex one. It is a fact that there has been an increase in the numbers of genuine asylum seekers who arrived on our shores over the last 12 months. However, this is not a phenomenon unique to Australia. Unfortunately the minister seems hell-bent on whipping up hysteria about asylum seekers in Australia instead of contributing to a durable solution to the problem.

Make no mistake about it, more than 90 per cent of those people who have applied have been recognised as genuine refugees as laid down in the UN convention. As immigration minister, Mr Ruddock wields enormous power over people’s lives. He has presided over great changes to the direction and composition of the migration and humanitarian programs. The latest change was in February of this year with the freezing of all the processing of offshore humanitarian visas until further notice. This was a knee-jerk reaction to the increased numbers of onshore asylum seekers.

Rather than promote harmony, this extraordinary move has the potential to create tension in the community between onshore asylum seekers and the relatives of offshore applicants. At the same time it is contrary to the minister’s rhetoric because people who have applied onshore are still having their applications processed while people who are waiting in an orderly queue, applying according to procedures either through the UNHCR or at embassies, are being told, `No, your visas will not even be considered until some time in the future.’

But the minister’s actions have not taken place in a vacuum. They should be viewed within the context of a government that cares little for international obligations. Its unwillingness to put a stop to the mandatory sentencing of juveniles in the Northern Territory, which contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, is a disgrace. It is little wonder that our humanitarian program is in disarray.