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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 7008

Mr ZAPPIA (1:18 PM) —I have just listened to the member for Kooyong and I respect and appreciate his honesty, his understanding and his passion on this issue. But it was disappointing that the member for Murray, the opposition spokesperson on immigration, came into the chamber earlier on and continued to misrepresent the findings of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration’s second report, to distort the effect of this legislation and then, after having supported the joint standing committee’s recommendation to abolish detention debts, said that now she opposes this bill.

I am speaking in support of this bill, the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009. It implements a unanimous recommendation of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration’s first report, tabled in December 2008, entitled Immigration detention in Australia: a new beginning. In essence, this bill abolishes the current practice by the federal government of charging detainees with the daily cost of detention for the period held in detention, including any transport costs associated with that detention. The bill also extinguishes all outstanding debts as at the time the bill comes into effect.

Importantly, the raising of detention debts for illegal fishermen and people smugglers will continue and will not be affected by this bill. The government maintains rigorous ongoing surveillance with respect to illegal fishing in Australian waters and the retention of detention debt liabilities for persons convicted of illegal foreign fishing or people-smuggling continues to be an additional, necessary deterrent.

The legislation is prospective and therefore there will be no refunds of any detention debts that have already been paid. No other comparable country, including the USA, the UK, New Zealand, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, imposes detention charges on refugees held in detention. In Australia, whilst a daily charge currently of around $125 is raised, most of the money is never recovered. For example, over the two-year period 2006-07 to 2007-08 the total amount of detention debt raised was $54.3 million, of which only $1.8 million was recovered. Administrative costs of managing and recovery of the detention debt for the 2008-09 year are estimated to be around $709,000. Administration and recovery costs are almost equivalent to the amounts recovered. If recovery levels fall, then it may cost the Australian people more to administer the immigration detention debt process than what is actually recovered.

The joint standing committee’s recommendation was not the first time that the practice by government of raising a detention debt has been questioned, as the member for Petrie highlighted earlier. In 2006 the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs recommended that the practice of raising detention debt be discontinued. Concerns about detention debt were also raised in 2008 by the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

On a technical matter—and it is a matter that goes to the heart of what the member for Murray was saying about why detention debts should remain in place—the intention here is very clearly to abolish the debt practice, not to write off or waive debts, as is the current practice. It is argued that we do not need to introduce this bill because the debts never get repaid anyway because we do not call on them to do so and we simply write them off or waive them, and it is argued that this is a practice that should continue. That is not the case, and it should not continue, because a debt that is written off can always be reinstated at a future time. Also, if debts were to be waived, a cumbersome process of assessing each and every individual debt would be required.

I understand that it has been a longstanding practice of the department not to pursue a detention debt incurred by a person who was subsequently granted a protection or humanitarian visa, and that such debts were written off. This bill makes it clear that such debts will not be raised in the first place and therefore provides absolute certainty to persons affected by the current provisions.

In the course of its inquiry the committee received numerous written submissions and met with former detainees and refugee advocates from around Australia. The question of detention debts was frequently raised because of the financial hardship faced by former detainees and because of the ongoing stress caused by having a debt hanging over their heads. If a person is provided with a protection visa or a humanitarian visa, it logically follows that the person met the criteria as a refugee and, therefore, long-term detention was inappropriate. To then charge that person for the unnecessary detention would also, logically, be inappropriate. To quote Julian Burnside QC, as the member for Petrie did earlier on, who appeared before the Joint Standing Committee on Migration:

… we are the only country in the world which charges innocent people the cost of incarcerating them.

As a signatory to and having ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and its protocol, Australia agreed to provide protection to people seeking asylum in Australia. The charging of detention costs is clearly not in keeping with the intent of the 1951 convention. Whilst the Department of Immigration and Citizenship recognises the 1951 convention and, I understand, generally does not issue an invoice or pursue debts for people found to be genuine refugees, it is a complete waste of taxpayers’ money to administer a system, at substantial cost, for no benefit to taxpayers.

There are several other points I want to make about the effects of detention debts on people. Firstly, the debts add more stress and trauma to people who in most cases have already endured incredible suffering and hardship. Secondly, the burden of detention debt can become another barrier in a person’s ability to resettle in Australia. Most detainees face serious financial hardship on their release, with considerable difficulty in finding employment and housing. Thirdly, an outstanding detention debt can prevent a person from re-entering Australia or from sponsoring other family members who wish to migrate to Australia, thereby preventing a family reunion.

The treatment of asylum seekers by the Howard government was a sad chapter in Australia’s history and was condemned by people from all sides of politics, including from members within the Howard government ranks. People’s lives did not matter; what mattered to the coalition was the political opportunism arising from a politically divisive issue. The Rudd government, on coming to office, quickly moved to change government policy relating to the treatment of asylum seekers. On 29 July 2008, Senator Chris Evans, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, handed down a new policy on immigration detention—a policy that was widely welcomed throughout the community, including by coalition members of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration. I would just point out that on that committee were the member for Hughes; the member for Kooyong, whom we heard speak earlier on; the member for Murray; and Senator Alan Eggleston—all coalition members and all of whom supported not only the recommendation of that committee but also the policy that was announced by Senator Evans when it was being discussed at committee meetings. It is a policy that ensures that all unauthorised arrivals are detained until health, identity and security checks are established—again, contrary to what the member for Murray would have this House believe.

This measure in no way weakens or diminishes the Rudd government’s resolve to prosecute illegal foreign fishing and people-smuggling activities. Firstly, not pursuing detention debts from asylum seekers who are granted a protection or humanitarian visa was a practice of the previous coalition government. It did not just start; it was a practice of the previous coalition government. Secondly, the Rudd government has one of the toughest and most comprehensive border security regimes in the world. It is a regime based on mandatory detention of all unauthorised boat arrivals until health, identity and security checks have been carried out; extensive air, land and sea patrols, strengthened only last week by the introduction of the Migration Amendment (Protection of Identifying Information) Bill in this House, which will aid and assist law enforcement officers in tracking down people smugglers around the world; prosecution of people smugglers; and, strategic regional engagement with source and transit countries to address people-smuggling. Thirdly, the Rudd government continue to focus on the complete spectrum of this complex refugee issue, including stabilisation, prevention, deterrence, detection and interception.

This policy is about bringing some humanity to the way we treat asylum seekers who come to this country and who have, as I said earlier, inevitably been through some exceptionally traumatic conditions. It is a measure that was unanimously supported by the joint committee, it is a measure that was consistently supported by people who made representations to the committee and it is a measure that I know will be welcomed by those many people out there right now who have debts hanging over their heads and who are uncertain of their future because of them. I welcome and support this bill and I commend it to the House.