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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6778

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (7:06 PM) —I rise tonight to speak on behalf of the Australian Democrats about the appalling situation of well over 1,000—closer to 1,500—asylum seekers from East Timor who are currently being faced with deportation from Australia after having lived here for many years. I note and pay tribute to the Senate for the resolution passed this afternoon. I moved the motion, so naturally I think it was a good one—but it was also moved on behalf of Senator Crossin and others to bring the public's attention to this situation and to call for action. Of course, it is one thing to speak about a problem and point to the injustices involved and another to put forward a course of action.

It is a situation that I think many Australians find difficult to believe, particularly people in communities such as Darwin, where many of these people have lived for a number of years—and the East Timorese community is in many ways a more significant part of Darwin than of other cities around Australia. There was coverage on the 7.30 Report last night again highlighting the real human toll and human suffering being caused by the government's refusal to act on this issue. By way of background, for people who are not aware of the situation, we have more than 1,500 asylum seekers who have had the processing of their refugee claims put on hold for many years. In some cases, these people have been living in Australia, working, having families and being effective members of the Australian community for as long as 10 years. For a number of years the Australian government put all of those claims on hold using a specious legal argument that they were Portuguese citizens or the responsibility of the government of Portugal and that they were therefore entitled to gain safety or protection from persecution by going to Portugal. The irony of that, given that the Australian government was one of the few in the world that recognised Indonesia's occupation of East Timor, was no doubt not lost on the people who were the victims of this policy.

Eventually—to the great credit of the people of East Timor—the people there very recently achieved independence and the government are now saying: `The situation has changed. We have now decided we will assess your claims but we will assess them against what is happening now as opposed to what the situation was 10 or five years ago when you lodged them.' It is an appalling artificial device the government have used to prevent people from being able to have a secure future. What these people have gone through for the last five to 10 years—having an insecure and uncertain future, living in limbo—is bad enough. As anybody who works with, or in the area of, refugees would know, the uncertainty about having a secure future is part of what makes life difficult for asylum seekers and refugees. So these people were put in a particularly appalling situation and, according to the law as it stands, the department is required to assess their claims against the situation in East Timor now.

The key issue in most cases—we shall see if it applies to all—is that those people will not meet the very strict criterion for being a refugee. It does not apply to just difficulties that you may face in returning to a place where you do not live, in some cases with children who have been born here and will be returned to a place where they have never lived, or in having nowhere to go back to— no home at all in some cases. That does not meet the criterion for being a refugee; you have to be persecuted for specific purposes by the state or a state agent on the grounds of political belief, race, religion and/or membership of a certain social group. So it is fairly unlikely that, assessed now, many of these people—if any—will meet the very tight criterion of refugee status. But that does not mean that they are not in a situation of hardship and suffering. As we have seen in the past, the Australian government has made exceptions in certain circumstances and given out specific humanitarian or other visas because of the special circumstances that people find themselves in. That was done most notably for the Chinese students here at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre who were allowed to remain in the country in an ongoing capacity. The same thing could easily apply here. The Democrats believe that we as a country still owe a debt to the East Timorese because of our actions and our failure to support them as a government over nearly 25 years and also because of the very specific difficulties that we put these people through.

If the Australian government had acted honourably at the time, all of these people would have got permanent visas—protection visas—back in the mid-nineties or earlier and many undoubtedly would now be Australian citizens. It is worth noting that refugees have the quickest take-up of citizenship after they have first got a permanent visa— much more so than people coming here under family reunion and even more than those who come here on business or skilled visas. Refugees are the quickest to take up citizenship to try to establish new roots and become productive members of the community and of Australian society in an ongoing way. We could have had these people in that situation for up to 10 years but, because of a quite inexcusable policy of the federal government, that is not the case, and we are now adding to their suffering by potentially forcing them back. According to figures provided to the Senate by the minister in a response to a question I asked last week we have already had decisions on 564 people from 235 families, all of them being refusals. All of those people whose claims have been rejected by the department, as well as those who will subsequently be knocked back, have the opportunity to appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal. If they are again knocked back, as one would expect they are likely to be, they have the opportunity to make a personal request that the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs exercise his discretion under the Migration Act.

Basically, the resolution passed by the Senate today is asking the minister to acknowledge the special circumstances of this group of people and the uncertainty and trauma they have endured by granting them—should they wish it—permanent residency in Australia on humanitarian grounds by means of a special visa or by means of the minister exercising his discretion. That can be done. There is no impediment to doing it—it has been done before. The Democrats—and I suggest, by virtue of this resolution, the Senate—are calling on the minister to do it again in this case. There are clearly reasons as good as before, if not better, for this group of people to be recognised as having unique circumstances—and unique circumstances where, unlike on previous occasions where this sort of mechanism has been used, the fact that they are in them is completely due to the actions of this and previous governments. I think we have some responsibility there as a government and as a country. There are even reasons to do this just on grounds of efficiency, rather than potentially having 1,500 people all making individual claims to the minister and having to be considered individually, case by case, as he is able to do under the law, which would undoubtedly take a lot of time and resources, as will all the cases before the Refugee Review Tribunal should people be of a mind to take that course of action.

There are a lot of resources there that do not need to be utilised and that would not need to be spent, if the minister were to act now to circumvent that process and simply recognise the unique circumstances that these people are in. The Democrats strongly urge the government to do so. We also urge the Prime Minister to take this situation into account. He has some credit to his name for what he did in relation to East Timor, which does need to be acknowledged even though it was way too late and, to some extent, caused by circumstances. It took 25 years but, nonetheless, when people finally do something that is good then it should be acknowledged, as the Democrats always do. It is due to the actions of past governments, including people like Mr Howard, that these people are suffering the way they are now. We ask him to recognise the humanitarian situation with the compassion that he says his government and this country still believe strongly in, and assist these people with their unique situation. (Time expired)