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Tuesday, 10 May 2011
Page: 2101

Senator WORTLEY (South Australia) (17:52): In rising to speak in this discussion can I first say that this matter of public importance was proposed by those opposite, yet we have had Senator McGauran stand here and waste eight minutes speaking about nothing. He would have had plenty of time to prepare if he had a case, but he does not have a case.

Unlike Senator McGauran, I welcome the opportunity to set the facts straight about what this government has done, and is doing, in the critical area of border protection and, importantly, to set the facts straight about the global context that has given rise to the displacement of people of many nations, some of whom are fleeing civil wars and the like to seek safe haven for themselves and for their families

The issue of unauthorised boat arrivals and irregular migration is not confined to Australia; it is a global problem which many countries around the world have been experiencing for some time now. These countries include Denmark, Sweden, Greece, Italy, Belgium, France, Germany, the United States, Austria, Norway and the United Kingdom. In March this year, the UNHCR released a report showing that during 2010 an estimated 358,000 people fled persecution in their homelands to seek asylum in industrialised countries. The total number of claims made in Australia remains well below levels seen in many other countries. It represents two per cent of total applications for asylum in the industrialised world, according to the report. In 2010, the main destination countries for asylum seekers were the United States, with 55,500 claims; France, with 47,800 claims; Germany, with 41,300 claims; Sweden, with 31,800 claims; and Canada, with 23,200 claims. In comparison, in Australia we received 8,250 claims, and these were largely from people coming from the most troubled and conflict-ridden regions of the world.

Let me be clear: border protection is indeed a matter of public importance. This government has a long-held commitment to addressing the serious nature of people-smuggling activities and to targeting those criminal groups who seek to organise, participate in and benefit from people smuggling. For the record, the Labor government has devoted unprecedented resources to protecting Australia's borders and developing intelligence on people-smuggling activities. It has worked cooperatively with Australia's regional partners to disrupt people-smuggling ventures overseas, and we are subjecting people smugglers to the full force of Australian law.

We know that people smugglers are motivated by greed and we know that they work in sophisticated cross-border crime networks. We know also that they have little regard for the safety and security of the people being smuggled, endangering their lives in unseaworthy and overcrowded boats.

The Gillard government believes the way to respond to what is a regional problem is to develop regional solutions. Irregular migration and people smuggling are global and regional problems that cannot be tackled by acting alone. These issues must be tackled in partnership with other countries. Under the Howard government, Australia took a unilateral approach. The Howard coalition government acted alone. It is a fact that genuine regional cooperation was never a prospect under the Howard government, and Senator McGauran knows that.

Protecting Australia's borders and airports from threats of terrorism, people smuggling, organised crime, illegal foreign fishing and the trafficking of illicit goods continues to be a top priority of the government. Those opposite know that the Labor government introduced legislation, including the Anti-People-Smuggling and Other Measures Bill 2010, which reflects this. This bill ensures that people-smuggling activities are consistently and comprehensively crimin­alised and it makes it an offence to provide material support for people smuggling. It also equips our law enforcement and national security agencies with effective investigative capabilities to detect and disrupt people smuggling. It is just one example of the government's commitment to addressing the serious nature of people-smuggling activities and targeting those criminal groups who seek to organise, participate in and benefit from it.

On Saturday, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship announced new measures as part of a regional cooperation framework that aims to put people smugglers out of business and prevent asylum seekers making the very dangerous journey to Australia by boat. The bilateral arrangement will take the form of a cooperative transfer agreement that will see asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by sea being transferred to Malaysia. In exchange, Australia will expand its humanitarian program and take on a greater share of the burden of responsibility for resettling refugees currently residing in Malaysia. The core elements of this bilateral arrangement will include a provision that 800 irregular maritime arrivals who arrive in Australia after the date of effect of the arrangement will be transferred to Malaysia for refugee status determination. In return, over four years Australia will settle 4,000 refugees already residing in Malaysia. Transferees will not receive any preferential treatment over asylum seekers already in Malaysia. Transferees will be provided with the opportunity to have their asylum claims considered, and those in need of international protection will not be refouled. So no-one who is transferred will return to their country of origin while their claims are being assessed or if they are found to be in need of protection. Transferees will be treated with dignity and respect in accordance with human rights standards. In addition, the UNHCR will be responsible for the processing of applicants involved in this process and a robust, independent advisory board will be established to oversee the implementation of the agreement.

Unfortunately, today most of the world's refugees are living in countries that have not signed the UN refugee convention. In the case of Malaysia, there is agreement to abide by key parts of the convention. Australia and Malaysia are working closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration to operationalise the arrange­ment.

In response to the government's announcement, UNHCR regional represen­tative Richard Towle said the scheme has the potential to improve the way the region manages refugee flows. In an interview published on the ABC online website, he says:

… it's very important that this agreement is appropriately monitored and is seen to deliver not only outcomes for governments in terms of dealing with human smuggling and trafficking movements but also is seen to deliver improved protection for people in the region.

I think in that sense it has the potential to … make a significant practical contribution to what we're trying to achieve in the region.

And if it's a good experience other countries can look at it and say yes, that's a positive way of managing these issues. Perhaps we want to embark on similar or other initiatives under a regional cooperation framework.

Mr Towle goes on to say that there are significant differences between the current deal and the Howard government's Pacific solution. He says:

This is an agreement, it's a bilateral agreement that has been negotiated within a broader regional cooperation framework with the involvement of UNHCR and the involvement of IOM … and we hope the involvement of other important actors as well, including non-governmental organisations.

So it is an agreement between countries that are actively involved with refugee issues and both commonly face a refugee displacement problem.

Mr Towle points out that the Howard government's push to house asylum seekers in countries without a refugee problem was about shifting responsibility. He says:

Australia was obviously looking at ways to divest itself of some of the responsibilities of dealing with refugees. The countries that were negotiated, Nauru and PNG at that time, did not have a refugee issue of their own and largely became places were Australia was able to manage its own protection responsibilities under the convention.

So it was not a regional burden-sharing arrange ­ ment at all. It was much more of a responsibility-shifting arrangement. And that's why we think they are not only philosophically but also in the way they were implemented they're quite different types of arrangements.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Marshall ) (16:40): Order! The time for this discussion has concluded.