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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5871

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (2:27 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs. Can the minister explain the extraordinarily long period of time—up to 10 years in some cases—that it has taken the immigration department to determine the claims for asylum from well over 1,500 East Timorese asylum seekers? Can the minister inform the Senate how many claims from East Timorese have now been rejected and when the decision on the remainder will be made? Is it the case that those people who exercise their right to appeal these decisions to the review tribunal will be plunged into poverty as a consequence, reliant solely on charity to survive for months, if not years, to come? Can the minister detail what the economic and social impacts will be if hundreds of families are unable to work and are ineligible for government assistance?

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) —There have been a number of cases in relation to the East Timorese. I understand that the department has been handing down primary decisions on protection visa applications for East Timorese asylum seekers since September 2002. It is inappropriate to discuss individual cases and why some cases took a certain length of time but, as at 11 November this year, 235 cases have been decided, covering 564 people. All decisions so far have been refusals. Further decisions will follow in the coming months in Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales, where protection applications are processed. Since the minister announced that decision making on East Timorese cases would resume, 106 applicants have been otherwise decided, including those who have been granted another visa and those who have departed Australia. There are some 1,070 East Timorese asylum seekers awaiting a decision.

All applications are being assessed in accordance with standard protection visa criteria. Any person found to be owed refugee protection will of course receive it. However, it is not unreasonable to expect people who are found not to be refugees to return home when their country is safe and secure. Any person refused a protection visa by the department can seek an independent review of their case by either the RRT, the Refugee Review Tribunal, or the AAT, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

East Timorese applicants have had the opportunity to provide further information or claims in the light of the current situation in East Timor. East Timorese who have applications under consideration will be able to remain in Australia until their applications are finally determined. Existing arrangements for provision of asylum seeker assistance to those in need will continue. In relation to which visas will be granted, the recommencement of decision making on the East Timorese cases has not changed the types of visas available to East Timorese people found to need protection. Those who arrive lawfully and are found to meet the criteria for a protection visa will be eligible for a permanent protection visa. Any who arrived unlawfully and lodged their protection visa applications before 20 October 1999 and are found to meet the criteria for a protection visa will also be eligible for permanent protection visas. Senator Bartlett mentioned I think 10 years in relation to some applicants. I do not have details in relation to that. I will take it up with the minister and get back to Senator Bartlett on that particular point.

Senator BARTLETT —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I note the minister's comment that these cases are being assessed using the standard criteria. Does the minister acknowledge that these are not standard cases? These are people from East Timor who have been in the Australian community for many years. The department and the government have been well aware of what the situation has been in East Timor. Is it the case that out of all these people who have received negative decisions—over 564 already; that is, 235 separate families—any who seek to appeal to the tribunal in the meantime will not be eligible for assistance, will not be eligible to work and that the children involved in those cases will not eligible to go to school? Can the minister indicate how many of those people who have married Australian citizens in this period and have been knocked back or are about to be knocked back will be forced to return home? How many children have been born in Australia whilst their parents were waiting to be processed? They will be eligible for Australian citizenship whilst their parents will not be eligible to be in Australia. (Time expired)

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) —There were a number of issues in the question. In relation to the number of children born and marriages in the interim, I will seek that information from the minister. Apart from the normal process that was engaged in for review, which is made available to people in such a situation, there was of course the need to ensure the situation in East Timor was clear enough to enable these cases to be determined reliably. I am sure Senator Bartlett would understand that, until recently, the situation in East Timor has been a rather fluid one. I will get back to him on those other details.