Aug 10, 2006

Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006


Second Reading

10 August 2006

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (11.41 a.m.)—I wish to speak in the strongest possible terms in opposition to the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006. This government has a policy that is built on sand. It shifts with the wind, it shifts on the basis of what is in the political interest of the government in terms of its preparedness to promote fear, to promote hatred and to vilify some of the most vulnerable people in the global community. It is no way for this parliament to provide the leadership that we have been entrusted to provide by our respective communities.

Last year, pressure from the Australian public forced the Howard government to make some minor changes to the Migration Act. These changes finally saw an end to the detention of children. The government committed Australia to processing asylum seekers within 90 days and they introduced the oversight of the Commonwealth Ombudsman in cases of prolonged detention. These reforms were a very small step in the right direction. But now we have a case of one step forward, two steps back. Today this parliament is debating a bill that reduces us as a parliament and as a nation.

This bill is based on a number of falsehoods. We just had the member for Leichhardt, again, introducing fear of diseased people and people who were Saddam Hussein’s bodyguards coming through on this basis. What is this about? It is about 43 people who were found to be genuine asylum seekers, the Indonesian government being upset by this decision and the Australian government saying that they were prepared to put the interests of the Indonesian government before the interests of the Australian people and before Australian sovereignty.

In guillotining this bill, we have seen a government that is prepared to even silence Australian parliamentarians. This bill is wrong in principle and it is wrong in motivation. It cannot be improved by any amendments, so we are not moving any. I pay tribute to my colleague the member for Watson—who is here in the chamber—who has taken a principled stance and who has shown that, in taking a principled stance, we can appeal to people’s better nature. I think that the Australian people are essentially warm and generous people. We have taken people from countries all over the world and, with the exception of our Indigenous people, we must remember that all of us are migrants or the sons and daughters of migrants. Yet we have, because of 43 people, this promotion of fear and a bill that is prepared to excise the entire nation.

You do not protect your borders by giving them up—and that is what this bill does. We need to put this into perspective. As of 28 April, there were 803 people in immigration detention in Australia—18 of them were unauthorised boat arrivals. During the first nine months of 2005 Australia received around 2,400 claims for asylum. This compares with 23,000 claims in Britain and 38,000 in France. The USA received 38,000 claims, but many times that number of people simply arrived in the USA without applying. During the past five years approximately 80,000 migrants and asylum seekers have reached the Italian peninsula by boat. More than 6½ thousand Africans have arrived, by sea, on the Canary Islands archipelago this year alone. The Australian government is removing our borders because of 43 asylum seekers whom it has found to be legitimate. This continues a campaign of fearmongering and vilification of asylum seekers.

The Labor Party supports border protection but does not accept that excising the whole of Australia is an effective means of border protection. You do not deal with boat arrivals by pretending that you do not have sea borders or by pretending that, if you arrive by one particular mode of arrival—boat—you do not arrive in Australia at all. In a statement on 19 April the UNHCR expressed serious concerns about the Australian government’s announced changes to the processing of boat arrivals. It said:

If this were to happen, it would be an unfortunate precedent, being for the first time, to our knowledge, that a country with a fully functioning and credible asylum system, in the absence of anything approximating a mass influx, decides to transfer elsewhere the responsibility to handle claims made actually on the territory of the state.

This bill is a disgraceful shirking of responsibility by Australia and it must be rejected. The Australian Labor Party rejects it. Australia’s 43 Catholic bishops have rejected it. As of 8 August 2006 almost 88,000 Australians had signed Get Up’s online petition rejecting the bill. I reject the bill as being fundamentally abhorrent to everything I believe in and all the reasons why I want to represent my electorate in this great parliament. The government would have us believe that these changes are small and the concessions great. The government would have us believe that the end justifies the means—that is, the temporary appeasement of Indonesia justifies the offshore detention of asylum seekers who have reached Australia by boat. We know that that is not the case. You cannot achieve peace by undermining human rights. If Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is built on such a flimsy foundation it is doomed to fail. I believe our relationship with Indonesia is much stronger than that. Our relationship with Indonesia needs to be built on mutual respect. I would like to quote Justice Michael Kirby:

Every diminution of freedom takes us in the wrong direction. Every act of discrimination by our parliament and governments dishonours our nation.

That is certainly the case with this bill. Our perspective on the 43 who arrived by boat is very different from our perspective on the majority of people who illegally arrive in Australia—who, of course, are on planes. Surely, that dichotomy is entirely inappropriate. As a result of this bill, asylum seekers arriving by boat will be processed by countries such as Nauru or PNG. The Pacific solution was created to deter the secondary movement of asylum seekers who, before they entered Australia, had bypassed other countries in which they could have sought asylum. We need to bear in mind that this whole thing is motivated by the 43 people from West Papua. I wonder what country they could have gone to between West Papua and Australia to seek asylum.

The bill will affect everyone arriving by boat in Australia, even those who have arrived directly from a state in which they face persecution. The government argues that this is the next logical step—that people arriving on mainland Australia should be processed as if they had arrived on one of the currently excised areas. This argument is patently absurd. The government is trying to pretend that, if you seek asylum in Australia and arrive by sea, you never actually arrive in the nation.

This bill also reaffirms the government’s commitment to prolonged detention. We all remember when the Pacific solution was established. We remember the Prime Minister’s grand statements that none of these people would ever set foot on the Australian mainland. We know that a majority of those people, considered under Australian law and UN conventions, were found to be legitimate asylum seekers. We know that, despite the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, many of them are now settled in Australia and making an outstanding contribution—as generations of migrants before them have done. But we know it was all about politics.

Who were most of these people? Most of them were people fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan—an abhorrent, fundamentalist regime that persecuted Christians, women and people who questioned the regime—and the abhorrent regime of Saddam Hussein. These refugees are understandably confused that the Australian government says that these regimes are so abhorrent that we will risk the lives of the brave men and women of the Australian defence forces to combat those regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and yet those people who fought courageously for democratic change and human rights in those countries and were persecuted as a result arrive in freedom loving Australia only to be locked up and sent away to Nauru for processing. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say that the regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban were so evil and yet we will persecute the victims of those very same regimes.

Through this legislation the government has committed to providing migration assistance for asylum seekers at offshore processing centres, but a number of questions are raised. Who will provide the assistance? Will the migration agents being chosen by the government? If so, how will their independence be ensured? Will this assistance even be guaranteed? Will journalists and lawyers be given access to detainees in the centres? So far only one journalist has been allowed to visit, and that was in April 2005. Access is also a problem for the ombudsman. Further, this bill gives asylum seekers arriving by boat no access to the Refugee Review Tribunal or to Australian courts for judicial review if their applications are refused. This bill not only physically removes Australia and its borders and excises the whole country; it also excises the values of our country. It excises our law. It excises our upholding of human rights. It excises our dignity.

We know that wrong decisions can often be made on refugee status. Between 1993 and 2006 the Refugee Review Tribunal overturned 7,885 departmental decisions rejecting applications for asylum. This means that more than 7,885 refugees were not returned to countries in which they feared persecution when the department had previously refused them a protection visa. Just this week the Edmund Rice Centre released information concerning the subsequent death of asylum seekers that has resulted from bad decisions by the government in sending back asylum seekers who legitimately feared persecution in their country of origin.

We know that there is a mental health aspect to this. We know about Cornelia Rau and the horrific circumstances of the failure in her case. But these failures have continued. On 22 May this year Dr Fiona Hawker, a very senior and highly respected psychiatrist who had been treating detainees at Baxter, revealed that at least six detainees who had been hospitalised with severe psychiatric conditions had been returned to detention against the specific advice of their treating psychiatrist. As a result they had to be returned to acute psychiatric care.

This undermines the global framework of the 1951 refugee convention. Why was the refugee convention developed by the United Nations in the post-World War II period? It was because of the experience of Jewish citizens fleeing Nazi Germany and the other fascist persecutors in Europe. These Jewish refugees were pushed back offshore in their boats, in many cases sent back to their deaths. The world said: ‘Never again.’ By adopting the refugee convention the world said that humanity is better than that, that we are part of a global community and that we do have a responsibility to stop that occurring again. Of course, Nauru is not a signatory to the 1951 convention, which is one of the reasons why that country has been chosen to house detainees. Papua New Guinea is a signatory, but it has not passed domestic legislation implementing a refugee status determination.

I watched with some amazement Minister Vanstone’s cold dismissal on television earlier this week of the allegations made by the Edmund Rice Centre. It is no wonder that there is not a single church organisation in this nation which is supporting this legislation. I say to Senator Fielding, who will have to consider his vote on this bill, that you are a representative of the Family First Party, not the ‘Australian Families First Party’, and kids being locked up behind barbed wire in what is essentially a prison camp on Nauru is just unacceptable in 2006, regardless of their origin, religion, race, gender or colour. It is simply unacceptable. Article 31 of the UN convention makes it very clear that asylum seekers arriving in a territory directly should not be penalised for their mode of arrival. It is no wonder the UN High Commissioner for Refugees stated on 14 May 2006:

It’s a pretty dramatic solution to the situation … They’re penalising people arriving in Australia by boat, as opposed to people who arrive by plane. Other countries deal with boat arrivals in much greater numbers than Australia.

I will conclude my comments by saying that this is a test of this parliament and this government. It has been a test of the Australian Labor Party and we have risen to the occasion, and that is why we are rejecting this legislation. But we have to bear in mind how future generations will look at what we are doing here. The kids in the schools in my electorate who saw Ian and Janey Han Hwang taken out of Stanmore Public School have seen, at that level, the persecution that can occur. But to take children offshore and lock them up behind barbed wire is something that should be completely unacceptable to all Australians. We need a government that is prepared to promote hope over fear, and we need a government that is prepared to respect the human rights of all individuals. I urge the House to reject this abhorrent legislation.