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Wednesday, 16 August 2006
Page: 138

Senator BARTLETT (7:19 PM) —Today in the Age newspaper there was the report about the request from the foreign minister of Nauru, Mr David Adeang, expressing concern about the condition of Muhammad Faisal, who is one of the two refugees who have been kept on Nauru for close to five years now. The Nauruan government has made an urgent plea, according to the report, for this refugee to be evacuated to Australia because of serious problems with his health, particularly his mental health. Unfortunately, the barrier to Mr Faisal being able to come to Australia is because of the same reason that he is still stuck on Nauru—that he got a negative security assessment from ASIO last year. He is one of two—the other man being Mohammad Sagar—who have this fate of having been accepted, acknowledged and recognised as refugees and therefore obviously not being able to return to their home country of Iraq but also not being able to gain a visa to Australia because of this negative security assessment from ASIO.

This circumstance highlights perfectly why it is so unconscionable to send asylum seekers outside the reach of the rule of law, marooning them on Nauru. If these people had been processed in Australia and had received a negative security assessment from ASIO they would have been able to appeal that assessment to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. They would have been able to use their legal rights under the relevant act to seek to find out why they had had a negative assessment and what grounds were being used to give them that assessment; why it was that they were deemed to be unsuitable by ASIO. All of those rights are denied to them, so they are stuck in a situation that I think all fair-minded people would recognise as the absolutely intolerable nightmare of being denied entry to Australia despite being acknowledged as a refugee and being denied entry to any other country because, not surprisingly, if Australia will not accept them no other country will accept them either, and why would they?

Despite that situation, they have no way of finding out exactly what the grounds are that have given them that negative security assessment. If they were in Australia, they would have legal rights to ascertain those things. I would like to think that all Australians, certainly all fair-minded Australians, would recognise that this situation is unjust. It is patently unfair. These people have basically been denied the most basic of rights—the opportunity to find out the reason why they have in effect been convicted and sentenced to potentially a lifetime of being marooned on Nauru. It is not surprising, frankly, that the mental health of one of them is deteriorating significantly. Frankly, it is only a matter of time.

I met both of these men last time I was on Nauru, about a year or so ago, when there were still around 46, I think, asylum seekers stuck there. At that stage they had had their ASIO interview but had not had word back about the assessment. Because they already knew they had been assessed as refugees, they were expecting to be given word that they would be getting a visa quite soon. Instead they watched while all of these other people who had been repeatedly told they did not have a claim suddenly got reassessed, thankfully, and then were given visas to Australia, and these men were left behind. They had been there since 2001 and through all of that time have seen well over 1,000 people come through Nauru. The majority of them over time, piece by piece, eventually move on to safety in other countries—the majority of them, of course, going to Australia. This is the perfect example of why it is completely unacceptable to put asylum seekers outside the reach of the rule of law and due legal process.

These two people were reinterviewed by ASIO a couple of months ago and again have had to wait with bated breath to find out what the reassessment will be. I can only hope that it is a positive one. If it is not a positive one then I will renew my call for the federal government to ensure that there is some mechanism for these people to have their assessment reviewed properly, fairly and independently, as would be the right of any person within Australia. It is not a matter of these people just getting a free card into Australia; it is a matter of the difference between them having a future and having absolutely no future and facing the prospect of being stuck on Nauru for the rest of their lives—as I said, something that does not necessarily thrill the Nauru government either.

For that reason it is doubly concerning that the federal government reportedly appears determined to go ahead repeating this mistake, this cruel approach, by transferring the latest arrival of eight boat people, who I understand are from Burma, via Christmas Island to Nauru. I hear the intent is to get them there as soon as possible. This approach is equivalent to that taken with Guantanamo Bay—placing people outside of the reach of the rule of law and outside of any legally enforceable due process. It also, I might say, is extraordinarily expensive to the Australian taxpayer and it serves no good purpose. We all have now seen quite clearly that other factors come into play when people arrive in Australia by boat seeking asylum, and the determination of how severely we punish people when they arrive here for having the temerity to seek asylum is not part of that solution.

I would also point to another group of people who are even more forgotten—those asylum seekers who are still marooned in Indonesia, particularly on Lombok, after being towed back to Indonesian waters from Ashmore Reef by the Australian Navy back in October 2001. They have now spent nearly five years in limbo in Indonesia without proper legal status and without the opportunity to be reunited with their families. Many of them, I think about 45, are Afghan people, from a country that our own government is acknowledging is so unsafe that it has to send extra troops there. Every report indicates how dangerous and unsafe that region is. Certainly my understanding is that most of these Afghan people are from trouble areas of Afghanistan.

Many of those were assessed, I acknowledge, by the UNHCR and found not to meet refugee convention criteria. But I would also state, and the UNHCR makes this quite clear in all of their guidelines and procedures, that they can make assessments of broader humanitarian reasons outside the narrow confines of the refugee convention, because the refugee convention is quite narrowly defined. You do not just have to demonstrate that you have a legitimate fear of persecution; you have to demonstrate that it is for specified reasons. So it can be quite valid and it does occur. Some of these people do have a legitimate fear of persecution but just not for the reasons that are in the refugee convention. It is quite credible to say that if those people return to Afghanistan or one of a few other countries—I think Iranians and Vietnamese are also in the camp on Lombok—they will be in severe danger.

If we think as a country it is okay to just tow people back to Indonesia, leaving them in a circumstance where they have no legal status or legal rights and where, if they return to where they have come from, they are at risk of severe harm or death, that is a sad state for our country to be in. These people are in the situation they are in as a direct consequence of the decision of the Australian government and a direct consequence, I might say, of legislation passed through both houses of parliament by both major parties back in 2001. It is easy to tow people away; then they are out of sight and out of mind. I think it is important that we do not forget these people.

Earlier this year I provided a petition to the immigration minister, Senator Vanstone, from a number of Australians urging that those people in Lombok not be forgotten and that we seek to ensure that they have some sort of future and are not also left in some sort of legal limbo where we can just wash our hands of them, Pontius Pilate like, say they are not our problem and leave them to an unknown and unimagined fate. Those are not the actions of a civilised country, and I would suggest they are not the actions of a country that is keen to try and ensure global or regional stability. I would urge the Australian government to reconsider its approach to the inhumane Pacific solution. (Time expired)