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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 7077

Mrs VALE (6:27 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009. As the Deputy Chair of the current Joint Standing Committee on Migration, I welcome this bill as the implementation of one of the recommendations of the committee’s report of December 2008 entitled Immigration detention in Australia. But before I proceed, I want to make it clear—in fairness to the member for Murray, who has sustained some criticism from the other side—that the member for Murray did not join our committee until November 2008 and the report was handed down in December 2008. So the member for Murray was not part of the deliberations of the committee.

This report looked at the criteria for release from detention, and recommendation 18, which dealt with the detention costs, said:

The Committee recommends that, as a priority, the Australian Government introduce legislation to repeal the liability of immigration detention costs.

The Committee further recommends that the Minister for Finance and Deregulation make the determination to waive existing detention debts for all current and former detainees, effective immediately, and that all reasonable efforts be made to advise existing debtors of this decision.

This is one of those rare occasions since I was elected to this place in 1996 that a recommendation made in a report from one of the many committees upon which I have served is actually the subject of a bill in this chamber. Although I note that there are many hardworking and diligent public servants who take note of our committee reports and recommendations, and often put in place those recommendations that can be implemented without need of legislative amendment—and I want to recognise their efforts—I do welcome the opportunity to actually see a recommendation from a committee put into legislation.

The purpose of this bill is to amend the Migration Act 1958 to remove the requirement that certain persons held in immigration detention in Australia be liable for the costs of their detention. At the same time, the bill will also extinguish all immigration detention debts outstanding at the time of commencement of this legislation.

In the course of many public hearings across Australia, our committee heard evidence from many individuals as well as many highly regarded service providers within the community. These organisations included A Just Australia, Amnesty International, the Asylum Seekers Centre, the Australian Red Cross, Balmain for Refugees, the House of Welcome, the Mercy Refugee Service, the Immigration Detention Advisory Group, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, the Detention Health Advisory Group, the Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project, the Law Institute of Victoria, Liberty Victoria, Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre Inc, the Justice Project, the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the Centre for Human Rights Education at Curtin University of Technology, Centrecare, Project SafeCom, Southern Community Advisory Legal and Educational Services Community Legal Centre, the Uniting Church in Australia, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, the Australian Human Rights Commission, Get-up!, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Legal Aid New South Wales and the Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors. All in all, the committee actually took over 139 submissions from various individuals and community organisations. These organisations gave evidence regarding the concerns of refugees and the burden and punitive impact of detention debt experienced by those refugees and their families.

I point out these are people whom we have found to be genuine refugees. We should remember that these people left their homes, fleeing from prosecution and violence, and were often traumatised by their journey here to Australia. Under the act, a noncitizen who was detained by the Australian government is liable to pay the Commonwealth the cost of his or her immigration detention and, where applicable, that of their families. The debt began to accumulate as soon as they were placed in detention. Initially, this provision was intended to be a cost-recovery measure by the then Minister for Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs, Gerry Hand. At the time of its introduction in 1992 by the Keating Labor government, the intent of the provision was to ensure that all unlawful noncitizens would bear the primary responsibility for the expenditure associated with their detention. Specifically, section 209 of the act was introduced to minimise the costs to the Australian community of the detention, maintenance and removal or deportations of unlawful noncitizens.

A further objective of the policy was to require former detainees to pay their detention debt to Australia, or make arrangements for repayment, as a condition for the grant of a visa for lawful re-entry into Australia sometime in the future. This objective was the subject in provisions under the Migration Regulations 1994. This particular provision was not only punitive but also a curious policy, in that it actually set up a financial barrier that effectively prevented ex-detainees who may have wished to follow the appropriate legal mechanisms to migrate to Australia sometime in the future. This prevented them from doing so. The detention debt against their name acts as a real barrier to their lawful application. So this can be seen as a confusing policy. If we want prospective immigrants to make a lawful application to come to Australia, why should we make it even harder for people to follow the lawful process? Under the policy as it stood, costs of detention were recovered only once the detention was ended and total costs were calculable. The exceptions were if a person in detention chose to pay these costs, partly or in full, before release or if their valuables had been seized and applied towards the payment of the incurred costs.

Over the years since 1992, the operation of the detention debt provisions has been the subject of several reviews which have raised the same concerns as those raised by our 2008 Joint Standing Committee on Migration inquiry. These concerns included fairness and equity and recovery and cost effectiveness of the implementation of this policy. In 2006, during the time of the Howard coalition government, the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee looked at the administration and operation of the Migration Act and reported under the title Administration and operation of the Migration Act 1958. Senators on this committee, when considering the impact of detention debt, concluded at page 207 of the report:

The evidence clearly indicates that the imposition of detention costs is an extremely harsh policy and one that is likely to cause significant hardship to a large number of people. The imposition of a blanket policy without regard to individual circumstances is inherently unreasonable and may be so punitive in some cases as to effectively amount to a fine. The committee agrees that it is a serious injustice to charge people for the cost of detention. This is particularly so in the case of unauthorised arrivals, many of whom have spent months and years in detention … the committee therefore recommends that it be abolished and all existing debts be waived.

The Senate committee recommended that the imposition of detention debt be discontinued except in instances of abuse of process or where applicants acted in bad faith. That was in 2006.

Last year, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration found that there was consensus of opinion condemning the policy as punitive and discriminatory. I remind the House that we had significant organisations giving evidence to the committee. We also found that submissions to the committee expressed concerns regarding the impact of detention debt on ex-detainees and in particular the burden on mental wellbeing, the ability to repay the debt and the restrictions a debt could place on options for returning to Australia on a substantive visa. Our 2008 committee also noted the detrimental flow-on effects for families and dependants and the ability of people to progress their lives once in Australia upon release from detention.

I point out that the debt was imposed upon people who we Australians had decided were indeed genuine refugees. We made it very onerous for these often traumatised families to make a new start here in Australia. We burdened them with debts to begin life in their new country and these debts often amounted to hundreds or thousands of dollars.

In addition, this provision also proved to be difficult for government to administer. The committee noted that less than 2.5 per cent of the detention debt invoiced since 2004-05 had been recovered, with the vast majority of debt having been waived or written off as unrecoverable. It became clear to our committee that this provision, which was initially a cost-saving device, could not fulfil its original intent. Our committee concluded that the practice of applying detention charges would not appear to provide any substantial revenue or contribute in any way to offsetting the costs. In practice, recovery of many detention debts was not pursued but waived or written off. When a debt is written off, this means that a decision is made not to pursue recovery of the debt. However, at some time in the future the Commonwealth could choose to execute debt recovery. When a detention debt is waived, the debt is extinguished.

Under the current arrangements, an unlawful non-citizen in immigration detention is charged a daily set maintenance amount for the entirety of their detention. As at June 2008, the charge per individual, including spouses and dependent children in migration detention, was $125.40 per day. Unlawful noncitizens who are removed or deported from Australia are also currently liable to pay for the cost of their removal, but this will remain unchanged. In the financial year 2008, nearly $3.5 million of detention debt was waived for 140 formers detainees. Write-offs were much more commonly employed, however. For the same period, just over $19.2 million was written off for 1,743 individuals formerly in detention.

In the last four financial years, 495 individual debts amounting to over $6 million were waived. For the same period, 10,580 individual debts amounting to just under $133 million were written off. In the last four financial years, a total of 17,355 detainees were invoiced with detention debts amounting to a sum of just over $170 million. The total amount of debt recovered since 2004 has remained disproportionately low—between one and four per cent of the total debts incurred. Since 2004-05, less than 2.5 per cent of the detention debt invoiced has been recovered and in 2007-08 only $870,000 of $23 million of incurred debt was recovered by the government.

While figures are not available for the annual administrative cost of assessing which debts will be written off or waived or for the cost of debt recovery for Department of Immigration and Citizenship and the Department of Finance and Administration, it is expected that the cost is significant. The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship has said that it seems that the cost of administering the scheme to collect the debt either outweighs or is close to a break-even point in terms of the money brought in. It seems to be a crazy situation to run a system to collect debt when it costs us as much to collect the debt as it does to generate income from it. As a cost-saving measure, the policy of charging detainees the cost of their detention has not delivered on its purpose. It is a further argument that this onerous provision should be repealed.

The committee heard a range of criticisms through the inquiry, particularly from the many community organisations that provide assistance and give support to migrant families and refugee families. Many condemned the provisions as punitive and discriminatory and many pointed out that they added to the trauma for people in detention and their families. Many described the provisions as being manifestly harsh and unjust and many pointed out that they caused unnecessary financial hardship to people struggling to establish themselves in Australia.

Further, we learnt that Australia appears to be the only country in the world to put costs for immigration detention upon detainees. Yet, as we have noted, the practice of applying detention charges does not provide any substantial revenue or contribute in any way to offsetting the cost of detention. As we have pointed out, it is likely that the administrative costs outweigh or are approximately equal to the debts recovered. As a cost-saving measure, this provision has clearly failed.

The evidence before the committee also indicated that the imposition of detention costs is an extremely harsh policy and one that can be shown to have caused significant personal hardship to a large number of people who are trying to make a new life for their families in Australia. At this point I would like to acknowledge the work of the Liverpool Migrant Resource Centre in my electorate and to acknowledge the leadership of Kamal and his dedicated team as they work to assist many new immigrants and refugees settle in my own local community area. It is also seen as a serious injustice to charge people for the cost of detention. This is particularly so in the case of those unauthorised arrivals who have spent months and years in detention, often after being traumatised by the experience of their journeys to Australia as they fled from persecution and violence.

Some in this place have put an argument that this provision should be maintained because it acts as a deterrent to potential unlawful arrivals in the future. However, during the course of the inquiry this was shown not to be the case for the simple reason that unlawful arrivals were not aware of the provision. Indeed, there were many members in this parliament who were not aware of these provisions until the advent of this amendment bill. I wish to make this point clear for the benefit of my constituents. This provision under division 10 part 2 of the act was never intended to be a deterrent. It was purely a cost-saving measure of the Keating Labor government and it has never worked as a cost-saving measure, as we have seen—it costs more in administration to try and recover the debt than the debt is worth.

This provision has never worked as a deterrent, either. It was never intended to be a deterrent. Potential refugees and unlawful arrivals never knew about possible detention costs. Therefore, it could not have been a deterrent. Deterrent measures are by necessity front-loaded at the beginning of a process. In this case, the detention debt was one of the last measures unfairly imposed upon unsuspecting illegal arrivals, many of whom were later found to be genuine refugees. It was never intended to be a deterrent and it certainly has not worked as a deterrent since its inclusion in the act in 1992.

The Joint Standing Committee on Migration called in its report for: the practice of charging for periods of immigration detention to be abolished; all existing debts, including those of people who have entered into arrangements to repay debts, and all write-offs to be extinguished, effective immediately; the movements alert list to be amended to reflect these changes; legislation to this effect to be introduced as a priority; and every attempt to be made to notify all existing and ex-detainees with debts of these changes.

I wish to make it clear, again, to the people of my electorate: how people come to this country is one issue; how we as Australians decide to treat them when they get here is entirely another issue. I am delighted to support the amendments to repeal this legislation. This has been an unfair provision since 1992. As I said, it is an unfair provision and the amendments repeal the detention costs and waive the existing detention debts. I support these amendments because they are fair, they are just and their repeal will give those Australians, those families, those men and women who have come to this country to start a new life—those people we Australians have found to be fair dinkum refugees—a fair start in their new homeland. I support these amendments because they reinforce the values that, to me, uphold what it is to be an Australian. I think one of the good things about Australia that unites us all, and that makes us proud to be Aussies, is that we do believe in a fair go. We do believe in playing fair, in being fair dinkum to others and in giving people that fair go and a fair start. These are sound amendments. This bill is good policy and I warmly commend it to the House.