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Wednesday, 15 August 2012
Page: 8658


Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (10:03): I welcome the fact that we are finally considering here some kind of shared commitment to the resolution of a terrible and sometimes shameful policy and political deadlock. And I absolutely respect and acknowledge the very difficult work undertaken by the expert committee led by Angus Houston in getting us to this point. But in so doing I reflect with great disappointment that this area of policy has been dealt with and discussed over the last decade in a way that represents a very low ebb in the tides of Australian politics and public policy.

The discussion has often been so full of distortion, misrepresentation, fear mongering, point-scoring and even righteousness that it cannot be called a debate. To the extent that we regard this outcome as a compromise it is still a compromise at the lower end of what we are capable of as a nation. We strive as a country for excellence in so many areas, and in so many areas we achieve that excellence. Here we have not excelled. Both the parliamentary process and the wider political process in which all of us, as parliamentarians and members of the media, share a part has not excelled. We have not excelled in presenting the facts to the Australian people, in crushing out the lies and easing the ill-founded fears, in lifting the miasma of misunderstanding and intolerance, and in arguing from principle towards reason and compassion.

I therefore welcome the Houston report's clear-eyed presentation of the evidence and policy considerations and a number of its recommendations, including the recommendation with regard to an appropriately funded, evidence based research program to address the gap in evidence and knowledge in this area. I also welcome the recognition that people undertaking dangerous boat journeys do so because their alternatives in transit countries are limited or non-existent, hence the report's discussion of the need to improve the availability of protection for asylum seekers while their claims are being processed and to deliver durable outcomes, including improved access to timely and fair processing of asylum seekers' claims for refugee status, safety and support, while claims are being determined and subsequently, including guarantees against non-refoulement and arbitrary detention; access to education, employment and health care; and expanded opportunities for durable outcomes.

I acknowledge the sadness, frustration and sense of urgency felt throughout the Australian community arising from the hundreds of asylum seeker deaths that have occurred through dangerous boat journeys in recent times. I recognise the spirit and best intentions behind the Houston report and the government's response in accepting the report's recommendations. I strongly welcome the proposal to increase the humanitarian intake to 20,000, and thereafter to 27,000, and the commitment to capacity-building as part of a more integrated regional cooperation approach. However, I would not be doing my duty on behalf of many of my constituents and fellow Labor Party members if I did not convey the deep sense of discomfort they and I feel regarding specific aspects of the path we are embarking on today as a parliament. 'Cruel to be kind' is a cliche that I am not sure is ever actually justified. In particular, there are strong concerns about the devastating consequences, including severe mental health issues, of detention of asylum seekers for indeterminate periods on Nauru and Manus Island. This was the proved experience under the Howard government's Pacific solution and the criteria have not yet been developed that would prevent such detention, in this case being appropriately described as arbitrary and potentially indefinite.

As my predecessor, Dr Carmen Lawrence, has written:

Not surprisingly, every independent inquiry into immigration detention has drawn attention to the poor mental health of detainees and the particular risks to children’s well-being.

…   …   …

Such research has revealed high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and panic attacks, attempted suicides and self harm. The longer people are held in detention, the worse the symptoms are likely to be, adding to the already high levels of psychopathology among those who’ve experienced persecution, harassment, torture and physical assaults.

Certainly, if the key criterion for the length of detention is the amount of time an asylum seeker would have had to wait if they had pursued UNHCR assessment within the region, then the wait could well be indefinite, because, for many asylum seekers, including those coming from places like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, there are no queues to join and no orderly UNHCR paths to safe haven in this country or elsewhere.

I also question the premise that asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat should not have any advantage over others who pursue orderly migration paths, not least because this idea of an orderly path or queue is simply a myth. The only reason we have the sense in this country that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are taking the place of those resettled from refugee camps is that we have operated a quota system that throws these two distinct categories together. This creates an administrative fiction, and there is no reason that we could not have a category and quota for resettlement in addition to meeting our fundamental obligation to assess the asylum claims of those who quite legitimately and legally seek humanitarian refuge in Australia.

It is not widely understood that Australia's resettlement of refugees out of refugee camps, one of the best such programs in the world, is something that we do as a good global citizen and is a very important contribution to the global challenge presented by the millions of refugees, but we do not have a legal obligation to operate this program. We do, however, have international legal obligations under the UN refugee convention to assess the claims of people who arrive and seek asylum, regardless of the manner of their arrival or whether or not they have valid travel or identity documents. As Graham Thom, Amnesty International Australia's national refugee coordinator, has written:

The origin of the notion of ‘queue jumping’, as Australians understand it in the current refugee debate, lies not in the fact that people living in refugee camps are more deserving of our protection, but in the fact that the previous Australian Government initiated a policy linking the onshore and offshore programs in a fixed quota system.

For that reason I welcome the Houston report's proposal in recommendation 21 that:

… the linkage between the onshore and offshore components of the Humanitarian Program be reviewed …

I consider that such review should be implemented as soon as possible.

The refugee convention prohibits the punishing of asylum seekers for the manner of their arrival. It is now proposed to lock up those who arrive by boat for an indefinite time on a remote island, while those who arrive by plane—who have often travelled to Australia under false pretences by obtaining a tourist, student or other visa and then claimed asylum once in the country—are not kept in detention and are permitted to remain in the community while their claims are assessed. As noted by Mike Steketee Global Mailon Monday:

There is a myth … that refugees who travel by plane do so legally, while those who catch a boat are "illegals".

… … …

both groups of people are equally entitled to use these means to claim asylum.

Mr Steketee also points out that Australia has an active program to disrupt the travel of people to Australia by plane, including by the exclusion of certain nationalities. He says:

The obvious reason why people risk their lives on leaky fishing boats is that they do not have an alternative.

Graham Thom also said:

As long as refugees have little chance of finding safety through official channels many will be forced to seek protection through dangerous unofficial channels. A successful regional approach can only work if refugees and asylum seekers' access to protection is improved, as evenly as possible, across all regional countries.

Amnesty International believes that Australia has a key role to play in developing a regional approach to refugees that in the long term reduces the need for people to flee their homeland, in the medium term reduces the need for refugees to flee countries of first asylum and in the short term provides refugees with more access to official migration routes throughout the region.

This approach must never be viewed as a substitute for the long‐established obligation to offer protection to vulnerable people asking for our help.

It is a lack of safe options across the region which forces refugees onto boats to Australia. Improving this situation is absolutely key to stopping people taking dangerous boat journeys.

The political discussion in recent years about stopping the boats and the people smugglers' business model has said very little about what it means to be a refugee. My own UN experience tells me that people do not leave or stay away from their homes without very good reason. In this context I would like to recount the words of President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia, who fled her country as a child after the Second World War. She made the following comments at a 2001 meeting of parties to the refugee convention. She said:

No one leaves their home willingly or gladly. When people leave en masse the place of their birth, the place where they live it means there is something very deeply wrong with the circumstances in that country and we should never take lightly these flights of refugees fleeing across borders. They are a sign, they are a symptom, they are proof that something is very wrong somewhere on the international scene. When the moment comes to leave your home, it is a painful moment.

…   …   …

It can be a costly choice. Three weeks and three days after my family left the shores of Latvia, my little sister died. We buried her by the roadside, we were never able to return or put a flower on her grave.

And I like to think that I stand here today as a survivor who speaks for all those who died by the roadside, some buried by their families and others not and for all those millions across the world today who do not have a voice who cannot be heard but they are also human beings, they also suffer, they also have their hopes, their dreams and their aspirations. Most of all they dream of a normal life.

…   …   …

I entreat you ladies and gentlemen when you think about the problems of refugees, think of them not in the abstract think of them not in the bureaucratic language of decisions and declarations, and priorities in a sense that you normally think of things. I entreat you think of the human beings who are touched by your decisions, think of the lives who wait on your help.

We can try to make it as difficult as possible for people to get on boats to Australia. But, as the Houston report notes:

A more comprehensive and sustainable regional framework for improving protection and asylum systems is a key prerequisite for creating safer alternatives to people smuggling.

In the meantime, there is a fundamental lack of protection that is causing people to leave their homes and to leave transit countries. Rather than attempts at deterrence, and punishment for those not deterred, we need to create the conditions that give people safety and hope. I look forward to seeing a constructive bipartisan approach going forward from this week's resolution, an approach that is fully consonant with our great values and capacity as a nation.