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Thursday, 25 August 1994
Page: 434


Senator McKIERNAN (7.10 p.m.) —I rise to make a few remarks on the government response to the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration Regulations. The report entitled Australia's refugee and humanitarian system: achieving a balance between refuge and control was presented to the parliament two years ago, in August 1992, so it has taken some time for the government and the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (Senator Bolkus) to respond to the report.

  In drawing attention to that delayed response, I am not in any way critical of it. There are reasons that the response could not be made earlier, not the least of which is the very major decision announced in November of last year relating to refugee status claimants from the People's Republic of China. The 1 November decision, as it has become known, has resolved one large problem in that particular area. Obviously it would have been pre-emptive to make the response earlier. A number of other happenings in the area have led to a delay in the presentation of this response to the parliament which, incidentally, came in before we rose for the winter recess.

  I was very pleased to receive the response because the government has accepted the vast majority of the recommendations of the committee. There were some 30 recommendations in all and the government has accepted most of them. Indeed, it has not only accepted them but has actually also acted on them already. I have drawn attention to the 1 November decision announced by the minister.

  In relation to the 1 November decision, I was one of the committee members that did not agree with the majority recommendation. I am prepared now to accept that perhaps I was wrong. Had we gone down the track that I encouraged the minister and the department to take, the problem we had with quite a large number of people in this country awaiting determination of refugee status would still be with us. It is now some nine or 10 months since the announcement of the decision and a very large proportion of the applications of those people for permanent residency have actually been processed. Those people are able to get on with building their lives in this country—settling down, rearing their children, bringing their families together and so forth. It is a very good decision—I say that in hindsight—even though I disagreed with it earlier.

  I want to draw attention to one other particular matter; that is, the recommendation regarding the length of time it took to process the applications of people who applied for refugee status in this country. There certainly have been some criticisms in the past, and there are ongoing criticisms about delays in processing the applications of people who arrived in this country by boat post-November 1989. It took substantial amounts of time for many of them to even lodge their applications for refugee status. Indeed, in some instances there were inordinate delays in processing those people's applications. Consequently, many people spent quite a substantial amount of time in detention.

  I am very pleased that the minister is able to record that the average time for processing the applications of people who arrive in this country illegally by boat is now five weeks. It has been possible in some cases for it to be done in two weeks and on other occasions, because of complications with the application, it has taken up to 10 weeks. But processing is happening very speedily. It is not just a matter of processing and rejecting the applications. Many of the people who have arrived here by boat and made application for refugee status have been granted that refugee status in Australia—not all of them.

   That brings me to our ongoing problem of unauthorised arrivals in this country. I am not going to canvass in any way legislation that is currently before the chamber because we will be dealing with it in another committee next week. But Australia has an ongoing and very expensive problem with people from other countries in the world seeking to enter this country illegally. They have no paperwork, have not been processed and have made no application for entry, but make application for refugee status.

   We have a very fine administrative system in place which takes an average of five weeks to process people. An independent review tribunal, which was established for those who fail in the initial application, came into operation on 1 July 1993. It also acts speedily on review applications from earlier rejection decisions.

  People who have failed both the initial application and the review application have then sought to press their case through the judicial processes in this country. Some legal people act for the public good—pro bono publico is the correct term; I am not relying on legal training in this matter because I do not have any—by giving their services free to these people to enable them to have their claims reviewed through, more particularly and more frequently, the Federal Court system.

   I regret to say that I believe—this will be dealt with later; I am being careful in what I say—that that system is now being abused. The major sufferers of that abuse are the taxpayers of Australia, who have to fund the continued detention of people, and the illegal entrants who remain in detention.

   The worse case that I have come across—it is a public case; it is not a matter involving legislation before the parliament—involves two very young Chinese girls. Their application for refugee status was rejected. They then applied for a review to the Refugee Review Tribunal. In their wisdom, their representatives withdrew the application for a review of their earlier rejection. This left the two young girls liable for deportation. Deportation orders were issued and arrangements were made for the children to leave this country because they had no further status here.

  In one week applications were made to three branches of the Federal Court. The matter went before five different Federal Court judges in five days. Those children are still in Australia because the legal processes in this country have ruled that they will do so. That is despite the fact that their parents are back in their home country—they are residents of the People's Republic of China—and are awaiting the return of their children.

  Many people have expressed concerns about children in detention in Australia. But there has been a stunning silence on this grossest case of child abuse that I have witnessed in this country. Advocates against keeping children in detention have not come forward on this occasion and protested that those children who, we have been told, want to return to their parents and whose parents want them back have been held in detention in Australia. This has to be stopped. It will be a matter for debate in this and other places in the near future. I, as a representative of Western Australia, just cannot sit by and allow those abuses to continue.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.