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Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Page: 10462


Ms OWENS (Parramatta) (09:39): I rise to talk about the extraordinary admission by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition that, if elected, they would return Sri Lankan asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka before their claims for asylum are considered. Just like that, the opposition would disregard the refugee convention and protocol, and the principles that they are founded on. It is a convention that some 60 years ago Australia signed—in its shame—after sending back boatloads of Jews who were escaping Nazi Germany, suggesting to them that perhaps they could go back to where they came from. Sixty years on, we would have a government that did the same thing to people fleeing Sri Lanka.

The Opposition would ignore our obligations under the convention, which states that Australia cannot return people found to be genuine refugees to a country from which they are fleeing persecution. How could we possibly be sure that refugees are not fleeing persecution without fully assessing their claims for protection? The answer is, we cannot. Sri Lanka was plagued by a dreadful civil war for 26 years. In that time, the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government were locked in a bloody conflict, causing significant hardship for the Sri Lankan people and leading to the death of between 80,000 and 100,000 people at least—the majority of those being Tamils.

This was a dreadful conflict, and without even going into how it started and who was right or wrong there can be no doubt in a conflict of that kind that there were dreadful acts on both sides, that there were acts of great bravery and courage on both sides and that many innocent people suffered and died in that conflict. As a result of that, there would be people who are undoubtedly in fear of their lives. How, after 26 years of a conflict like that, could there not be? The idea that all of those people—anybody fleeing Sri Lanka—has to be an economic refugee and returned reminds me of that incident that caused us to sign this convention in the first place, when we turned back boats of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Most countries in the world did it and in our shame we created the refugee convention so that we would never do that again.

It is extraordinary that in 2012 anybody who believes that they are capable of governing a country that is as civilised as Australia would actually believe that that is acceptable. It is not, and I stand here absolutely telling the opposition that it is not acceptable. I will not even go into the hypocrisy that it is okay to turn boats and people back to Sri Lanka, which is not a signatory. I also want to stand here with my Tamil community, that is quite appalled by this. They are in fear of this; they are afraid for their countrymen. This is an appalling position for an opposition to hold, and I condemn it.