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Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Page: 8527

Mr ADAMS (Lyons) (16:48): The question of asylum seekers has been a vexed problem for all developed countries for decades. It has posed huge challenges for the world's destination countries, including, of course, our own Australia. These countries struggle to maintain a balance between controlling national borders and offering protection to millions of displaced people. Just think of when the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was established in 1951: there were approximately 1.5 million refugees internationally. At the end of 2010 there were an estimated 43.7 million forcibly displaced people, including 15.4 million refugees, 837,500 asylum seekers and 27.5 million internally displaced persons. It is a lot of people.

We have recognised as a government that, with the magnitude of these global trends, the number of people seeking asylum in Australia is small compared to those in Europe and other parts of the world. But we have had a long history of accepting refugees, including thousands during and immediately after World War II. They have contributed hugely to the development of our nation, and some of us are much better people because we grew up with migrant children and went to school with them.

However, there is a great deal of confusion, I find, about the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee. Often the terms are used interchangeably and incorrectly. An asylum seeker is someone who is seeking international protection but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined. But a refugee is someone who has been recognised under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees to be a refugee. The definition of refugee does not cover individuals or groups of people who leave their country only because of war or other civil disturbance, famine or natural disasters, or in order to seek a better life. It is only the fear of persecution and that they cannot return safely to their homes in prevailing circumstances that make them a refugee. These definitions are important if we are to put sense into what the government is trying to do to prevent people launching themselves into leaky boats and risking their lives to maybe claim asylum here in Australia.

The confusion about the difference between these, and their legal status, arises from those arriving by boat doing so without a valid visa or any other appropriate authorisation, whereas most, though not all, who arrive by air and then seek asylum usually enter on a valid visa. When unauthorised boat arrivals are intercepted in Australian waters, the passengers are transferred to Christmas Island in order to establish their reasons for attempting to enter Australia without authority.

There is a view that asylum seekers, particularly those who arrive in Australia by boat, are 'jumping the queue' and taking the place of more-deserving refugees patiently waiting resettlement in refugee camps. And, as per the figures I quoted earlier, there are a lot of people in camps seeking to be assessed as refugees. But the concept of an orderly queue does not accord with the reality of the asylum process. Very few are registered with the UNHCR. Fewer than one per cent of the world's refugees may be resettled in any given year. Refugees do not have a right to be settled and states are not obliged under the 1951 refugee convention, or any other instrument, to accept refugees for resettlement. It is a voluntary scheme coordinated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which, amongst other things, facilitates burden sharing amongst signatory states.

Although Australia is very willing to take in refugees—we certainly do our share and always have done so—we cannot take them all, nor should we. Every country has an obligation to assist the displaced, and although some of them have less than ideal conditions they are often a lot better than those in the places they left.

There needs to be a regional solution—this has been started for some years now—where all countries can assist in resettling or repatriating the millions of people in our region who require it. Only by negotiating and discussing issues with our neighbours and working with them will we find an ongoing solution. The government is introducing legislation to enable the transfer of irregular maritime arrivals to third countries for processing of their asylum claims. This is a means by which boat arrivals can be stemmed so that people do not risk their lives only to find they will not necessarily be able to stay in Australia.

In world terms, the number of asylum seekers coming to Australia is quite small. But there have been a number of political problems that have resulted in a threefold increase in boat arrivals, and this has been exploited by the other side of the House and by other political parties. This has also led to the tragic loss of life due to people smugglers luring people onto boats without their having knowledge of what was before them. However, I think the crunch time now has come and there is a realisation by all parliamentarians that we all have to act and make decisions if we are to prevent more deaths at sea. It is not easy for some MPs, which I readily accept, and I know it is very difficult for my own colleagues to accept what is in front of them, but we have to bite the bullet now to achieve that. On the government side of the House we have had to endure a bit of ribbing from the opposition, but they have also given a lot of ground, allowing all possible options for offshore processing. They are also agreeing to a greater number of places under the humanitarian program.

The report of the expert panel on asylum seekers, now known as the Houston report, produced some recommendations that are aimed at better achieving a way forward that shifts the balance of risk and incentive in favour of regular migration pathways and established international protections as against high-risk maritime migration. I thank the three men for the good work they have done for their nation. I believe the acceptance in full of these recommendations will ensure that the government of the day can determine the border protection policy it believes is in the best interests of the nation.

We also remain committed to increasing the humanitarian program to 20,000 places per year, with a minimum of 12,000 places to be allocated for the refugee component, which would double the current allocation. But we cannot take all the refugees around the world who are hunting for new homes. When I was in Iran a few years ago I visited one of their refugee camps. They told me they had over two million refugees coming through their country at that time. I watched as hundreds of buses were loaded up with displaced persons. They were given a few sets of clothes, a 20-gallon can of water per family and some simple food and then were put on the buses and sent back over the border to a site in Afghanistan where it was deemed safer than where they had come from.

I was briefed in Cyprus more recently on the many thousands of illegal immigrants coming through from the Turkish side into the Greek side. The Cypriots were desperately trying to sort out what to do with them.

Most of them were trying to get to the European continent and were just using Cyprus as a jumping point. It caused all sorts of difficulties there. Malta has had to cope with thousands of people coming in from Libya, with all the troubles going on there. They are two small islands that have had to cope with excessive numbers of illegal arrivals. We are fortunate that it is not as easy to get to Australia as it is to get to some other parts of the world that displaced persons try to get to. Even so, we must do our bit because Australia might not always be the end destination; it might be Nauru or Malaysia or Indonesia or other countries in South-East Asia if regional arrangements are put in place. It is only this regional solution that will give us the proper solution in the long run.

People smuggling is a criminal act. It exploits and takes money from desperate and frightened people. We should treat those people smugglers and their criminal actions with the contempt they deserve. I understand around 1,000 people have died at sea trying to get to Australia in recent times. That demonstrates why we need to pass this legislation. We must stop the people-smuggling trade, and under this legislation there will be no advantage for people trying to get to Australia in leaky boats. There is a no-advantage test in this legislation—there is no advantage in trying to get to Australia in a boat illegally. This legislation will give people an opportunity to be processed where they are. We will increase the number of people able to come and we will give them every opportunity, but there is no advantage in their trying to get on a boat and come across the sea, endangering themselves and their family. That is the message going out in this legislation. Hopefully it will save people's lives and put an end to this dreadful trade, taking away these dreadful people who exploit others trying to find a way forward in their lives.

I believe, now that the legislation is finally coming to parliament, there is a desire by just about everybody—not everybody, of course—to solve the dilemma we have found ourselves in. I support the legislation.