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Thursday, 17 July 2014
Page: 116


Mr DREYFUS (IsaacsDeputy Manager of Opposition Business) (19:56): I rise to speak to the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Intercountry Adoption) Bill 2014. Australia has a long history of participating in intercountry adoptions, dating back to the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Going forward a couple of decades, a dramatic example of Australia's history of participating in intercountry adoptions was Operation Babylift in the final days of the Vietnam War that saw approximately 280 children from orphanages in Saigon adopted by Australian families. Australia has a long history of participation in intercountry adoptions and a growing interest, since the Second World War, in intercountry adoptions. That interest ultimately culminated in Australia signing in 1998 the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in respect of Intercountry Adoption, which is known by the short title of the Hague convention.

The Hague convention exists to protect children and their families from the risks of illegal, irregular, premature or ill-prepared adoptions abroad. It operates through a system of national central authorities and acts to support and reinforce the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention seeks to ensure that intercountry adoptions are made in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights and general wellbeing.

It is important to note that this bill that is before the House does not affect Australia's obligations under the Hague convention. This legislation amends the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 to extend citizenship to children adopted directly from a country that is not a signatory to the Hague convention. Currently, those countries include South Korea, Taiwan and Ethiopia. The amendments give effect to a recommendation made in the report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption in April 2014.

I should say that Labor's position is to support this bill. However, it is critical to ensure that, despite the best intentions that are reflected in this bill, the best intentions of the recommendations of the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption, there are no unintended consequences. In particular, the risk of exposing children to trafficking should be avoided at all costs. It is essential that we ensure that there are stringent safeguards in place to prevent trafficking from happening.

While it is understandable that Australians seeking to adopt children from overseas want to remove barriers and simplify the process, we must not compromise our commitment to our international legal obligations, nor should we turn a blind eye to the exploitation of children and families in home countries. Regrettably, that does occur. Families whose only desire is to provide a better life for their children might be tricked by false information and false promises to participate in an adoption process. Sadly, we have already seen such exploitation in Ethiopia, which resulted in the closure of the Ethiopia-Australia intercountry adoption program. That was in response to circumstances that were increasingly unpredictable, challenging and complex. In 2009 the Ethiopian program was suspended due to concerns that it was no longer consistent with the principles of the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in respect of Intercountry Adoption. The program was resumed in 2010, following a formal review and the implementation of a new framework of safeguards by Ethiopia.

In 2012 the program was closed by the then Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, on the advice of the Attorney-General's Department. The decision to close the program was a tough but necessary one. There were a number of problems with the Ethiopian program that led to its closure, including problems in identifying trustworthy orphanages, coupled with a significant increase in non-government agencies operating in Ethiopia which created an unhealthy competitive environment for overseas adoption—and by 'non-government agencies' I am referring to private operators engaging in an adoption business, which is one way to put that. That kind of competition for overseas adoption possibilities does not sit well with Australia's obligations under the Hague convention.

In Ethiopia there were not merely the dangers posed for children who might have become involved but many prospective Australian parents were being left in limbo for years. Some prospective Australian parents travelled to Ethiopia only to discover that the child that they believed was available for adoption was not. Closing the program was the responsible thing to do and was based on clear advice from the Attorney-General's Department. Labor expects that before reopening the Ethiopian program the government will put in place proper protections to make sure any further adoptions are undertaken in an ethical way. Unless the past issues in the Ethiopian program have been resolved—and they were clearly identified at the time; they formed the basis of the then government's decision to close the program—the risks to potential adopted children and potential parents here in Australia are just too high. Intercountry adoption should be about finding families for children, not children for families.

I have taken the time to outline the problems with the Ethiopian program because those problems and the reasons that led to the government closing the program in 2012, after an earlier suspension and reopening, are a salutary lesson of the dangers and risks involved in intercountry adoption. What the government needs to do going forward is make sure that appropriate resources are devoted to the enforcement of safeguards and to Australia's compliance with international obligations.

The amendments that are before the parliament will allow a child adopted in an overseas country to be granted Australian citizenship once the adoption is formal in the child's home country. The change will have the effect of the child not needing to be granted a visa because the child will have become an Australian citizen and, necessarily, the adoptive parents not needing to be sponsors of the child's visa.

Labor introduced a sponsorship limitation in the Migration Regulations 1994 in March 2010 that prevents a sponsorship from being approved if one of the proposed applicants is under 18 years of age and the minister is satisfied that the sponsor or the sponsor's spouse or de facto partner has a conviction or outstanding charge for a registrable offence. Sponsors and their partners of child category visa applications lodged on or after March 2010 are required to provide an Australian national police check and/or a foreign police certificate as part of the process of assessing the application. The results of the police certificate or certificates are used by the department of immigration to assess the sponsorship application and whether or not the visa application satisfies the public interest criteria relating to the best interests of the child. This should be a minimum requirement for adoptive parents seeking to have adopted children granted Australian citizenship.

As I have mentioned, the background to the adoption of that limitation in the Migration Regulations back in March 2010 was to make the point that one cannot be too careful, that it is always essential to have this kind of safeguard in place. Equally, it is important to try, as far as possible, to make sure there are safeguards in the countries from whom children are being adopted. It is tragic that child trafficking has occurred in countries which lack a robust adoption framework, which has had, on occasions, very sad results for children and very sad results for adoptive families. Our objectives should be at all times that the best interests of children lie at the heart of every decision that is made in this area and, as I indicated before, Labor will be supporting this bill.