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Tuesday, 25 September 2001
Page: 27816

Senator LEES (5:33 PM) —I rise to speak on this package of migration legislation. I find these bills draconian. Obviously, it is very much a poll-driven package that undermines fundamental human rights. They are unnecessary bills and are excessive. They will cause many vulnerable people, who are desperate, more misery and heartache. The ALP is to be condemned for their approach to these bills. Originally, they were vehemently opposed to several of them. We see them flapping around looking for a few votes at the coming federal election. They have decided to line up with the government in the hope that they will actually get some votes at the expense of refugees.

Their lack of commitment and lack of backbone will probably cost them votes. I say this for two reasons: firstly, because as Australians become more aware of the issues, more aware of what these bills are about, I think they will be appalled at what the ALP have done. I believe the ALP cannot hold to a specific opinion or a decision. Given a slight breeze, they waft around and eventually settle with what is a popular option.

Senator Bolkus —Whose bills are they? Where do they come from? No wonder you are on the back bench.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator McKiernan)—Order!

Senator LEES —As the Australian deliberation process has found, once people have more information and had a chance to discuss the issues, to listen to opinions, their understanding and their opinion changes. After that weekend at Old Parliament House discussing reconciliation, we saw the number of participants who considered reconciliation as being one of the most important issues virtually double. It went from 31 per cent before the weekend began to 63 per cent on the Sunday afternoon. I believe that over time, once more of these issues are understood and we have more details as to what the government and the opposition are doing here relating to asylum seekers and refugees, more and more Australians will be horrified by what their parliament has done.

At the moment the polls are showing that treating refugees harshly is popular, but I think the significant and growing minority the Democrats represent here today will continue to grow. We stand for what is humane treatment of the peoples of the world, particularly those suffering oppression. We stand for what is in line with international treaties, what is required under our constitution concerning the separation of powers specifically for the right to appeal to courts. Speedy passage of appeals through the courts is to be commended but not permitting people the opportunity to have their day in court is certainly not.

Many of the churches support our stand. A statement from the Uniting Church dated 24 September states:

The Synod of the Uniting Church of Victoria meeting today in Victoria unanimously voted to express its deep concern at both the Federal government's and the Australian Labor Party's treatment of and the attitude towards asylum seekers.

It goes on to talk about, in a recommendation debated without dissent, the church expressing its concern at the haste with which the legislation has been introduced. The Reverend David Pargeter, social justice director of the Uniting Church of Victoria, said in his moving of the recommendations that he `was finding it difficult to find any sophisticated arguments to understand the way asylum seekers were being treated in this debate'. He said:

When our main political parties are not prepared to lose an election over 600 refugees, well, I think they have lost their integrity.

We are all appalled at the terrorist acts in the United States on 11 September. Indeed, that date will be etched into the world's calendar. I believe it will be a day, for generations, on which people will stop and remember those who lost their lives. And, yes, we must now work at an international level to stop terrorism but this legislation is not about stopping terrorism: it is simply an attack on refugees and asylum seekers. It is about demonising them. Yes, we did have about 4,000 people arrive by boat seeking asylum last year but around the country we have about 50,000 people illegally overstaying their visas. Many of them are probably working illegally yet our government seems to have no interest in vilifying them.

This legislation is supposed to send a message that these refugees are not welcome and that therefore—as the government theory goes—people in Afghanistan or Iraq will be deterred or persuaded not to come. The situation for many in those countries is absolutely desperate. They are not sitting at home in their lounge rooms with their feet up watching the coverage on TV of boat people found off Christmas Island being forcibly sent off to Nauru after quite a few days sitting in the sun on the deck of a Norwegian boat. The ABC's FourCorners program about life under the Taliban in Afghanistan, which aired two weeks ago, should be shown again and again. It should be compulsory viewing for anyone who argues that people fleeing the Taliban—especially women—are not genuine refugees.

Life in Afghanistan, particularly for women and children, is appalling. Indeed, it is so appalling it is difficult to describe when one only has words. Three-quarters of all children in Afghanistan have lost an adult relative in the four years of Taliban rule. Women are forbidden to work—indeed, they are not even supposed to leave their homes without a male relative. They have no access to education; they have no access to medical treatment because they are only permitted to see female doctors and the female doctors are prohibited from practising medicine—prohibited from working.

No-one who was seen this program will ever forget the faces of one woman's children. Unable to work, the woman was forced to beg for mouldy bread that was being sold as animal food. The mother scraped off the mould, then ground the bread until it resembled sawdust and fed it to her seven children. Then there was the footage of the football field, a gift from the international community to the people of Afghanistan. It has been turned into a public execution area. Women were led, blindfolded, into the stadium, as hundreds of people looked on, and forced to kneel on the dusty ground and were then shot in the head. There were dead men hanging from the goal posts.

A representative from Doctors Without Borders on Friday evening's PM program described the situation in Afghanistan after three years of drought. She said:

... a large number of people are dependent either on food aid, or on money which relatives send to them from outside of Afghanistan in order for them to buy food because there's no cultivation or agriculture going on at the moment, of course, because of the drought.

She continued:

If the NGO's are not there to support the hospitals and clinics, there's only the private health system which exists, which in itself is not really a system—it's just a few rogue doctors or pretend doctors who sell drugs in the bazaar, in the marketplace.

She said:

They're very vulnerable people physically, nutritionally. There's no ability to respond to an epidemic, for example if there was an outbreak of cholera or any other epidemic, there's no-one able to respond.

When asked by a journalist if there is a danger of a mass humanitarian crisis, she replied:

Well I think there already was. That's the message I'd like people to understand. There already is a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan ...

For a rich industrialised country like Australia to be wasting so much time, so much money and so much energy to have the legal right to reject a boatload of desperate individuals from Afghanistan seems absurd to me, and it certainly seems absurd to my Democrats colleagues in the Senate as well. To answer some of the critics—such as the previous speaker—who say that they should all just go and queue, there is no queue in Afghanistan or indeed in most of these countries—in Iraq and Iran, for example.

There was no queue in Vietnam, either, after the war ended there. At that time, and we are now going back to the early eighties, there was some opposition about Asian refugees—Vietnamese boat people—coming here. But they were welcomed by the government. They were offered support and there were no detention centres. My family—we were living in Mount Gambier at the time—was among those families who supported Vietnamese families. They came and lived with us, and we helped them to adjust to their new country and to the Australian way of life. The Vietnamese boat people took enormous risks—just as the Afghani, Iraqi and Iranian refugees and others are taking similar huge risks today. The estimate is that as many as 50 per cent of the Vietnamese boat people perished on their way to freedom and a better life. Many Vietnamese paid to get on a boat and/or they paid pirates at sea for safe passage. Most of them arrived here with only the clothes that they stood up in. I stress here that this is not how committed terrorists, bent on destruction and chaos, would come. They would be, or perhaps already are, amongst those who have overstayed or who, in the future, are planning to overstay, tourist or student visas.

Most of those Vietnamese boat people are now Australians. They have settled here, they are valued members of our community and their children are now young adults who, looking at the results, have done extremely well at school. Many went on to university and are now our young professionals. The vast majority of refugees from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan have been found to be genuine. They are not falsifying papers. They are not telling stories; they are not lying. They are genuine refugees fleeing torture and trauma. They will be staying here.

I ask this place: what sort of introduction is it to their new country to be here under the circumstances that we are forcing upon them—being locked up, being sent to camps ringed by barbed wire and then being bussed to capital cities if they qualify as refugees, with no support and only the charities to rely on, often at all sorts of odd hours of the night? For children in particular this is extremely traumatic. The physical and mental health of refugees, as you read the reports, is frequently very poor as a result of trauma in their country of origin, frequently exasperated by the hardship of their journey and put under further stress in Australia thanks to their treatment, particularly in detention centres. Often as they are released, because they do not qualify for Medicare—they do not qualify for much support at all—the services that they desperately need are simply not available.

The antirefugee phenomenon is not new in Australia; it has been building up over about the last 15 years. It has been well documented by C. Graydon in an article entitled A Decade of Dismay: Good Bye to Refugee Protection, to which I want to refer. If we go back to 1986, it was a Labor government which amended the Citizenship Act to remove citizenship rights to children born in Australia to asylum seeking parents. It was a Labor government in 1992 which introduced mandatory detention. In 1994 Labor removed the right to appeal a refugee decision on a range of grounds. It was Labor in 1995 which imposed a processing freeze on East Timorese refugee applications. The effect of this is that we have still got, about 10 years later, some East Timorese asylum seekers in limbo. So perhaps the stand of Labor today is not quite that much out of character, and I certainly will not be holding my breath waiting for them to change any of these draconian provisions should they happen to win government at the coming federal election.

I would like to go through some other steps that have been taken to show people like Senator Harris that so much has already been done to protect our borders. We have an enormous range of provisions already that makes it extremely difficult for people to even get here, particularly for people to be accepted as genuine. The article says:

1st July 1996 Minister announces a global `quota' system for on and offshore refugee and special humanitarian programs, nominally allocating 2,000 places to onshore refugees and 10,000 to entrance under the offshore Refugee and Special Humanitarian Programs.

Basically, it now became a competition between refugees from various parts of the world to see who could actually get up the list.

20th August 1996 Introduction of a range of processing measures at primary level including: requirement that all claims, evidence and other information be lodged at time of applications; rejection without further inquiries if claims not lodged immediately; no general requirement/expectation of interview; `strict' adherence to letter of codified `natural justice'; adverse information rarely made available to applicant ...

20th August 1996 Withdrawal of Asylum Seekers Assistance (financial support administered by the Australian Red Cross) after rejection at primary stage. Severe restrictions on payment of asylum seekers assistance to those in exceptional financial hardship before the requisite six month `waiting period' for eligibility has elapsed.

21st March 1997 Minister attacks independence of Refugee Review Tribunal by introducing measures, which include “clearer articulation of my (the minister's) expectations and directions to Tribunal members”.

1st July 1997 Withdrawal of permission to work (and therefore access to Medicare) to anyone who does not apply for refugee status within 45 days of arrival in Australia.

1st July 1997 Introduction of $1,000 post application `fee' for unsuccessful applicants to the Refugee Review Tribunal.

1st July 1997 Announcement that holders of temporary pieces for those from Sri Lanka and former Yugoslavia would not be further extended despite absence of proof of improvement of conditions ...

... ... ...

Sept 1997 Immigration detention centres (Port Hedland, Villawood-Sydney, Maribyrnong-Melbourne, Perth) privatised and contracts awarded to ... a subsidiary of Wackenhut Corrections Corporation.

1st May 1998 Tightening of character requirements legislation, reversing the onus of proof so that visa applicants are required to show they are of good character. Legislation, unprecedented throughout the Commonwealth, requirement that any character cases heard by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal must be decided within a 45 day period or the applicant automatically loses.

And so it goes on:

8th May 1998 Government tables Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report ... in Parliament on the same day as the Federal budget is handed down. The report found that conditions in Villawood and Perth detention centres breached Article 7 of the ICCPR which prohibits torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

1st July 1998 Removal of eligibility for Legal Aid for all asylum seekers, except in cases before the Federal or High Court and then, only in very narrow circumstances.

As we move through we see:

... Removal of eligibility for bridging visa ...

... ... ...

1999 Legislation to overcome the Federal Court's decision that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission have the power to send a sealed letter to an immigration detainee ...

Basically, what all this means is, yes, people have rights, but they no longer have any way in which they can know what their rights are.

30th April 1999 `Safe Haven' legislation passed by Senate denying holders of safe haven visas—

and they were mainly Kosovars and people from Timor—

the right to seek asylum ...

... ... ...

26th May 1999 Decision by United Nations Committee Against Torture against Australia that a Somali asylum seeker refused refugee status may face torture and that his proposed return would constitute refoulement and hence a breach of Australia's international obligations under the Convention Against Torture.

It goes on and on. There are another eight on the list here of various actions that the government has taken during 1999 and 2000 to further restrict the rights and opportunities of people who are seeking asylum here. Perhaps the one that really does need mentioning, as I am running out of time, is:

16th Dec 1999 ... the Border Control Amendment Act ... prevents some asylum seekers from even applying for refugee status (those having spent 7 days in another country, are deemed to have a right of return to that country) ... Other amendments fundamentally change the definition of a refugee requiring asylum ...

Early Feb 2000 Reports of asylum seekers held at the remote Curtin Air Base detention centre, protesting—

violently and vehemently against the conditions that they were facing in that detention centre.

Those who would like a full read of this quite lengthy litany of how both Labor and Liberal governments have taken away the rights of asylum seekers can find further details in the report A Decade of Dismay: Good Bye to Refugee Protection. As I said, we already have a process that is very tough on refugees. We are not swamped in Australia; we do not take too many refugees. Indeed, in 2001 we will have the usual amount of about 12,000. Pakistan has about one million Afghani refugees already; it is now letting tens of thousands more across the border with the help of the Red Cross. Iran hosts over a million Afghani refugees. As you move through Africa, you see that countries have hundreds of thousands of refugees. In Tanzania, I think that there is one refugee for every 76 Tanzanians. In Britain, there is one refugee for every 530 Brits. But in Australia we have only one refugee for every 1,583 Australians. I say: enough is enough; this simply is not fair. Surely we should be doing to others as we would have them do to us. I think that as a parliament we will stand in history quite rightly condemned for the legislation we are passing today.