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Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Page: 13442


Dr LEIGH (Fraser) (13:31): The issue of migration and of refugees is one that is particularly close to my heart. I spoke in my first speech in this place about my mother's parents, a boilermaker and a teacher, who lived by the credo that if there was a spare room in the house it ought to be used by someone who needed the space. I remember as a little kid, eating at my grandparents' place and spending time speaking to migrants, some of them refugees—from Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, Chile, Cambodia and Sri Lanka.

I also told a story that still brings a lump to my throat about an art competition run as part of Refugee Week, where the first prize went to a Karen Burmese woman who had woven a traditional crimson tunic. She was missing her homeland so much that she had made a loom by taking the mattress of the wooden bed base and using the slats as a loom to weave a traditional Karen tunic. That story for me sums up the extraordinary courage and ability of Australia's refugees. It is why you will never hear me referring to refugees as 'illegals'. It is why you will never hear me using phrases like 'boatpeople'.

It was of course Australia's own Doc Evatt who was a key drafter of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which says in Article 14(1): 'Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.' And that is why there is nothing illegal about seeking asylum from persecution.

But what we have to do in this place is to find a set of policies that will end the sheer horror of drownings at sea. There have been over 1,000 drownings of asylum-seekers at sea over recent years. What that has meant is that, on the best estimates I have seen, about four per cent of those who have tried to get to Australia by boat have drowned doing so. It is a death rate which must give pause to anyone who simply says, 'Let everyone come.' There is nothing humane about a policy that says if you can take a leaky boat and make it to the shores of Australia you get to stay here as a refugee. To me that is a fundamentally inhumane policy.

We have got into this situation, in part, because of changes in technology. If you go back 20 years, you needed a somewhat more experienced sailor in charge of a fishing vessel to have a chance of making it from Indonesia to Christmas Island. The GPS has changed that. With a GPS device you can actually put a 15-year-old kid in charge of a fishing boat and he has a reasonable chance of making it to Christmas Island. It has meant that more people have attempted the dangerous journey and it has meant that we have seen more drownings at sea. That in turn has meant, as the member for Chifley said, that we need to rethink our policies. Like him, I see no shame in that. The greatest shame is to pursue a set of policies that are ineffective; you need to adopt policies that will stop drownings at sea. It is the old Keynes line: 'When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?'

It is those stories of drownings which have seared themselves into my consciousness. The late, great Senator Peter Cook chaired the SIEVX inquiry, an inquiry that was looking into an incident where at least 70 children drowned; at least 200 adults lost their lives. The member for Chifley, although he did not mention it in his speech, was one of those who were on the parliamentary inquiry that investigated the Christmas Island disaster, a disaster after which 30 bodies were recovered, including four juveniles and four infants. Another 20 were missing, presumed dead. There have been others. Some of the worst of those were where vessels were simply lost at sea, where everyone on those vessels perished.

Like the member for Chifley, I believe that the most effective way of reducing the flow of unseaworthy vessels, and the risk to those aboard them, was the Malaysia agreement. The Malaysia agreement was one which, as the Houston panel noted, was 'vitally important'. I still support that agreement. I still hope for the day that those in the opposition will support an arrangement that would provide the clearest possible message to those considering getting onto leaky boats: don't do it, because you will be returned to one of the largest asylum-seeker camps in our region.

The 'no-advantage principle', the rock on which the Houston report is grounded, is a clear principle but it is more difficult to implement through measures available to us through the use of Nauru and Manus islands and bridging visas in Australia. Far more effective would be an agreement with Malaysia.

One of the chief arguments raised against returning refugees to Malaysia is that Malaysia is not a signatory to the refugee convention. That is an issue raised by those opposite. It is also an issue that is frequently raised with me by local Labor Party branch members. I had to smile when the member for Cowan suggested that somehow my speaking in this debate was a way of securing my preselection, because I can promise you there is deep disquiet among many of my branch members on this issue. The argument I would make to them and that I would make today to the House is that we must see the refugee convention in its historical light. We must recognise the way in which that document was drafted and we have to recognise that some of the aspects of the refugee convention are difficult. Indeed, the member for Cook himself said that the refugee convention 'no longer reflects the practical reality'. It is a document which was drafted to deal with the flow of refugees in the aftermath of World War II.

The result is that we now have three groups of countries in the world when it comes to the refugee convention. We have developed countries with the ability to patrol their borders who are happy to sign the refugee convention. We have developing nations which receive few asylum seekers—for instance, Somalia or Iran—and are willing to sign. But there is a third set of countries—such as India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia—who are reluctant to sign. These are countries situated close to refugee sending nations who recognise that, were they to sign up to the refugee convention, they would be obligated to take, house and resettle all of the refugees with genuine claims who came over their borders. That is simply impractical for some of these countries to do. Pakistan, as of the end of last year, had 1.7 million refugees. For these developing countries the cost of processing asylum seeker claims, let alone the cost of meeting education, health and housing obligations, would be prohibitive. The cost is what prevents them from signing the refugee convention.

You do not have to take my word for it. In April 2007 the Malaysian foreign ministry's parliamentary secretary told the news outlet Malaysiakini that it would not officially recognise refugees since 'the government is of the opinion that if Malaysia becomes party to the convention, considering its strategic geographical location in the region, it would be a drawing factor for refugees to come to Malaysia'. It is for that set of reasons that the Malaysian government has not signed the refugee convention. Malaysia is a party to many international agreements. The reputation of the Malaysian government has been done a deep disservice by those on the other side of the House in the context of the asylum seeker debate.

It strikes me that there is little consistency in the coalition's opposition to the Malaysia agreement based on Malaysia not having signed the refugee convention. The Howard government used Nauru to process asylum seekers at a time when Nauru was not a signatory to the refugee convention. The opposition would have boats turned back to Indonesia, a country which has not signed the refugee convention. I think what is demanded of all of us in this debate is a practical approach which recognises the reality of asylum seeker flows. GPS technology means younger and younger skippers are crewing boats. We need to work with non-signatory countries. Rather than being bound to a policy which has more people drowning at sea, we need to recognise the geopolitical realities as to why the Malaysian government does not sign the refugee convention.

The government is committed to implementing the recommendations of the Houston report. Those recommendations include working through a managed regional system. That approach is grounded in the Bali process, of which Australia is a core part and recognises that, around the world, there are around 40 million internally displaced people and asylum seekers—nearly twice the population of Australia. It is never going to be possible for Australia to resettle all of those who would like to seek asylum in Australia. Our best contribution will come from working regionally and finding approaches which have a reasonable sharing of the burden across countries which are willing to settle refugees. That is a classic role Australia has played—a middle-power diplomacy working cooperatively with countries in our region. I commend the Prime Minister and the foreign minister for their work in the East Asia Summit and their constant advocacy of good policy in the region and cooperative policy with those around us.

When I last spoke in this debate I said that I hoped the refugee intake would one day be increased to 20,000. I am now pleased to be able to welcome that increase to 20,000 places, which has occurred through the Houston report. I believe that Australia can, and should be able to, settle more refugees. I am very proud of the organisations in my own electorate of Fraser who do such good work with refugees. They are committed to rolling out the welcome mat to people who have been assessed as genuine refugees, and helping them become a strong part of the Canberra community.

In closing, I also acknowledge Sarah Staege, a temporary migrant to Australia, who is in the gallery today with three of her colleagues. This indicates the benefits of migration to Australia.