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Monday, 7 September 2009
Page: 5800

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (8:51 PM) —I rise to speak to the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009. I would like to commend the minister, Senator Evans, for his commitment to abolish this arbitrary and pointless policy—a policy that makes Australia the only country in the world that charges innocent people the cost of incarcerating them.

The Greens, through the work of former Senator Kerry Nettle and the Leader of the Greens, Senator Bob Brown, have for years been at the forefront of calls to abolish the practice of requiring refugees to pay the cost of having been locked up in detention. According to Australian QC and human rights activist Julian Burnside, we are the only country in the world which charges innocent people the cost of incarcerating them. It is not a distinction with much merit. The fact that a person who has never been charged with a criminal offence, let alone convicted of one, could be forced to pay the cost of being locked up in detention is an insult to the fundamental principles of justice and brings into question our commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The original intent of the Migration Amendment Act when it was first introduced by the Keating Labor government in 1992 was to support the policy of mandatory detention through using it as a temporary measure for a designated group of unauthorised persons who arrived by boat between 19 November 1989 and 1 September 1994—and here we are today.

Section 209 of the Migration Act stipulates that a noncitizen who is detained is legally required to pay the Australian government the costs of his or her detention. The liability includes the cost of transporting the person to and from an immigration detention centre, the cost for each day the person spent in detention and, under section 211, the cost of removal from Australia if the detainee’s visa application is refused and they are subsequently deported. Under the act as it currently stands, each detainee is legally required to repay the Australian government the cost of their detention unless the debt is specifically waived or written off. The policy has long been seen by human rights and refugee activists as implicitly contravening international law and the spirit of the 1951 refugee convention. It has also undermined Australia’s ability to raise genuine concerns as to how other countries are treating or discriminating against refugees arriving in those countries.

While asylum seekers who were later recognised as refugees have generally had their debts waived, there is nothing in the law that stipulates this has to be the case. Many detainees released under ministerial discretion or on special visas have been issued debts and required to pay. The combined debts arising from parents and children in detention resulted in some families accruing very large debts, often exceeding $200,000. One detainee who was recently deported received a bill of over $512,000.

It is worth noting, however, that the detention debt recovery policy has never actually been effective in significantly reducing detention costs, as the level of debt recovery over the years has never been high—about four per cent on average. According to the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the ‘total detention debts to the Australian government owed by 406 people amounted to $8,095,271 as of 30 June 2007.’ Of this amount, $4.8 million, or 60 per cent, is more than 120 days overdue for payment and is unlikely to be collected—not the most efficient debt recovery regime.

The introduction of this piece of legislation to extinguish all outstanding detention debts for noncitizens who are currently in detention or have previously been detained is a welcome policy shift from the Labor Party, who originally introduced this arbitrary policy back in 1992. I am glad that they have seen the error of their ways. As I mentioned previously, the Greens have been opposing the imposition of detention debts and calling for this policy to be changed for years. Detention debts have flagrantly added insult to injury for those who have come to Australia seeking assistance and protection.

Back in June last year, in response to a question without notice from my former colleague Senator Nettle, the minister stated, ‘It does seem to be a crazy situation to run a system to raise debt when it costs us as much to raise the debt as it does to generate income from it.’ Adding to the minister’s remarks, I would suggest that it is not just crazy to run a debt collection scheme that costs more than the money actually collected; it is also crazy to be charging innocent people for being incarcerated. It has never worked as a deterrent to people seeking asylum, as the opposition suggest. Detention debts are clearly out of step with the government’s promise of a more compassionate approach to immigration and asylum seeker issues, and I commend the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship and his department for following through with their commitment to restructure the system of detention and the way in which it is viewed. The Greens believe that the use of the term ‘extinguish’ is fair and reasonable and clearly ensures that there are no avenues for any future government, whoever they may be, to force former and current detainees to repay any debt incurred.

The report Immigration detention in Australia: a new beginning, by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, of which I am a member, made a number of important recommendations to improve the fairness and transparency of Australia’s immigration detention policy. One of the key recommendations from the committee’s report, which the minister outlined during his second reading speech, called for an end to charging former detainees the cost of their detention. The sums can be very substantial and well beyond the means of many people to repay, and they can cause great stress.

Given that the committee tabled its report in December last year, it has been encouraging to see the minister act so quickly on recommendation No. 18, which is to extinguish existing debt. I would also like to take this opportunity to urge and encourage the minister to formally respond to the remaining committee recommendations and the report which I co-authored with Petro Georgiou and Senator Eggleston. It would be good to see the minister’s responses to all of these recommendations.

I would just like to mention that, while the Greens are indeed keen to see this legislation pass as swiftly as possible—in fact, we have been waiting years and years for this piece of legislation—it is disappointing to see that the legislation fails to take into account the money that has already been collected from individuals. While I acknowledge that implementing a scheme to refund money that has been collected would be an administrative nightmare, I do think this is an area that we need to look into further, to see how the government could assist those who have had to pay for time spent in detention—now, of course, acknowledging that this was the wrong thing to do from the very beginning. Considering that the approximate charge for one day in immigration detention is $125, coupled with the fact that there are currently more than 30 detainees who have spent more than two years in detention—accumulating an estimated $91,000 debt at a minimum—it seems outrageous that that we have taken 17 years to repeal the liability of immigration detention costs.

The committee majority in the 2006 Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee report Inquiry into the administration and operation of the Migration Act 1958 concluded:

… it is a serious injustice to charge people for the cost of detention. This is particularly so in the case of unauthorised arrivals, many of whom have spent months and years in detention. The fact that this policy has been implemented in the context of a mandatory detention policy makes it all the more egregious.

It seems ludicrous that we have a policy of mandatory detention and then we require people to pay even though it is mandatory. While some other countries have, in recent years, expanded their use of detention as part of tougher border control and asylum regimes, Australia remains the only country that has mandated a charge for the cost for detention of all unauthorised arrivals. In a speech delivered in 2004, QC Julian Burnside argued:

It is a remarkable thing that an innocent person, who is incarcerated, is made liable for the financial cost of his own incarceration. No other country on earth makes innocent people liable for their own detention.

During a visit to Canberra, Emily and her husband Kasian, who currently have an outstanding debt of $161,000, spoke to me and other senators in this chamber. Having this debt over their heads for the last 12 months has meant that there has been a constant reminder of the trauma and tragedy experienced during Kasian’s 28 months in immigration detention. Emily said:

Kasian and I just want to move on with our lives … to have security of residency and citizenship and the right to travel overseas and introduce our children to their extended family …

Given that, from 2006 to 2008, detainees were billed $54 million but the Commonwealth received less than $2 million, it is clear that this policy of detention debt is flawed. It is time to stop demonising innocent people fleeing persecution by locking them up and charging them for their detention, treating them worse than the most abhorrent criminals imaginable, such as paedophiles, murderers and rapists. We do not charge them for their own incarceration. We must move beyond this policy that has tarnished our international reputation and ensure that those seeking protection are provided with the support and the compassion they deserve. I would urge the opposition, who did not support the passage of this bill in the other place, to look closely at the devastating impact that this policy has had on innocent individuals and families and support the historic passage of this long overdue piece of legislation. Let us accept that the Labor Party have accepted that they were wrong.

Despite the official opposition position, we must acknowledge the four members of the Liberal Party in the lower house—MPs Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent, Danna Vale and Judi Moylan—who all gave impassioned speeches in support of overturning this regressive policy. Although we have not heard from any thus far, I would hope that we will hear from some equally compassionate and good souled members of the opposition in this chamber who are willing to speak up against their own party’s ridiculous position, which is in stark contrast to that of the community.

In debating such a historic piece of legislation, we must not forget the ongoing commitment and advocacy from all the refugee, church and legal organisations, as well as many individuals, who have, over the years, lobbied both current and previous governments to have this arbitrary and regressive policy overturned. Thousands and thousands of hours of volunteer time have gone into supporting people who have not been able to repay their debt and to lobby for this change in policy. In a paper on the policy of mandatory detention by the Public Health Association, they argued that the:

Trauma experienced by asylum seekers is exacerbated by being placed in detention centres and the uncertainty about their future, resulting in reports of para-suicide, completed suicide and self-mutilation.

Trying to quantify the specific impact of a detention debt on detainees against the many other stresses is therefore extremely difficult, but we know that it exists. For anyone with compassion and an understanding of basic human rights it is clear that the imposition of a debt on such a mentally and physically vulnerable group of human beings would have an incredibly detrimental impact on their ability to resettle in Australia and find a new life.

We should be assisting those who have sought our protection, not punishing them by imposing a charge for every day they spend in detention awaiting their visa, leaving them with a debt once they are released. The fact that Australia is the only country to have charged asylum seekers for their time spent in detention clearly contravenes our commitment to the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees. That commitment signifies our intention to provide protection to those seeking asylum in Australia, those who are the most vulnerable in the world.

It is a welcome piece of legislation that is before us. It is long overdue. The Greens look forward to working with the government and the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Evans, on pursuing a more humane approach to the way Australia treats those seeking our protection. I shudder at the thought that perhaps we may go back to a day when we lock children in detention, when we charge people who are innocent and when we simply throw away the key on people in the middle of the desert. It is not the type of regime, or refugee policy, that Australia wants to go back to. It is not the type of refugee policy that our government should be looking to. I hope that the opposition reflect on some of the comments that have been made in this chamber tonight. I think they are abhorrent.