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Wednesday, 11 October 2006
Page: 3

Mr ROBB (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) (12:00 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Australia has the most effective and comprehensive entry system in the world, basing its success on its multi-layered nature. Advance passenger processing, which allows an airline to verify a passenger’s visa prior to a flight’s departure to Australia, is one of those components. A universal visa system for all noncitizens entering Australia, including those transiting Australia, is another. At the border, together with the Australian Customs Service performing immigration functions on behalf of my department, we are able to verify, as far as possible, that all noncitizen arrivals have valid visas.

The Migration Amendment (Border Integrity) Bill 2006 proposes measures designed to further strengthen the integrity of Australia’s borders. Automated border processing systems will take advantage of new technologies, such as facial recognition technology, to enhance the way in which passengers’ identities are verified. This will aid in combating fraud, while expediting passenger processing. The bill also proposes an amendment to the Migration Act 1958 in relation to special purpose visas.

The proposal to use automated systems in immigration clearance marks an important strengthening of Australia’s border control measures. At present, the immigration clearance process at the border is performed manually by the primary line officers. However, extensive trialling of the automated border processing system presently in use at Sydney and Melbourne airports, the SmartGate system, has proven the viability of using facial recognition and new passport technology at the border.

The proposed amendments are designed to allow for the expansion of SmartGate to all Australian citizens, and selected noncitizens, provided they hold an eligible e-passport. It is a key budget initiative of government to provide an alternative to manual processing in immigration clearance. The amendments will also support an integrated approach for the use of biometrics in border control, and form part of a broad joint initiative between the Australian Customs Service, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and my department.

The number of international arrivals and departures at Australian international airports is forecast to increase by up to 23 per cent by 2009. Automated clearance at the border will allow greater volumes of passengers to be processed and decrease passenger processing time, while enhancing the integrity of border processing. The facility will aid in combating identity fraud and act as a deterrent to the use of forged or stolen passports. The bill will also enable New Zealand citizens who hold an e-passport to apply for and be granted a special category visa using the automated system without the need for a clearance officer to be present. New Zealand citizens who do not hold an e-passport will continue to be processed and granted special category visas by a clearance officer.

This initiative is a voluntary alternative to manual processing at the border. Eligible persons can choose whether to use SmartGate or to be processed by a clearance officer. While the amendments will permit personal identifiers, such as photographs and signatures, to be presented for verification in immigration clearance, they do not authorise the system to collect and store these identifiers. The collection of personal identifiers at the border, where this is permitted by the legislation, may only be done by clearance officers.

Special purpose visas are temporary visas which provide lawful status to selected classes of noncitizens, allowing them to travel to, enter and remain in Australia. They cover persons such as crew members of non-military ships, airline crews, guests of government and, recently, athletes participating in the Commonwealth Games.

Historically, the special purpose visa regime was designated to facilitate the lawful travel and entry to Australia of certain low-risk groups of travellers. Stemming from this, special purpose visas are distinct from other visas as there is no visa application process and the visa is granted by operation of law on arrival in Australia.

Nevertheless, there are occasions where it is appropriate to cease a person’s special purpose visa. Most commonly, this is in relation to foreign sea crew who may be considered a risk of deserting the vessel in Australia, or where there is a character or health concern.

The Migration Act currently provides the power for the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to make a declaration that it is undesirable that a person, or any persons in a class of persons, travel to and enter Australia or remain in Australia on a special purpose visa. The declaration has the effect of ceasing any special purpose visa held by the person and preventing the grant of a special purpose visa to such a person.

However, the Migration Act currently operates so that a special purpose visa held by such a person does not cease until midnight on the day on which the declaration is made. This means that the person cannot be detained until the end of the day on which that declaration is made—despite the person potentially posing a risk to the Australian community.

This is of particular concern where, for example, a master of the vessel has reported a crew desertion. In such circumstances, DIMA officers would usually cease that person’s special purpose visa and commence processes to locate that person. However, if the person is found on the day their special purpose visa is ceased, officers cannot detain the person until midnight on that day and there is a risk the person will abscond.

The proposed amendments would allow the minister to specify a particular time in the declaration as the time at which the declaration will take effect. The amendments would also provide that the special purpose visa will cease the moment the declaration takes effect. The time specified in the declaration must be a time after the declaration is signed—the minister cannot specify a time earlier than the time the declaration is signed.

I should add that departmental officers currently use the declaration power to cease a special purpose visa with great care and based on carefully defined circumstances. In addition, such declarations are often revoked where, for example, further information becomes available to an officer and the person is no longer considered to be of immigration concern.

The measures contained in the bill mark an important strengthening of Australia’s border control initiatives. These amendments are designed to enhance and preserve the multilayered approach to border control and to ensure that Australia continues to employ the leading technologies such as facial recognition to aid in the identification of those who come to Australia.

Debate (on motion by Mr Crean) adjourned.