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Monday, 7 September 2009
Page: 5809


Senator XENOPHON (9:33 PM) —I support the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009, which will see the end of a policy that penalises persons who come to our shores seeking asylum from persecution in their homelands. I will address some of the issues raised by Senator Cormann shortly. I agree with Senator Cormann on a number of issues, but, unfortunately, this is not one of them. The supposed original objective of the detention debt policy was:

 ... to minimise the cost to the Australian community associated with the detention of unlawful noncitizens ...

That is how it was put. But it was a policy that, I believe, went against the essence of what Australia stands for. As I have said previously, one of the pillars of Australia's international reputation is our belief in the right of a fair go for everyone, and that is not just reserved to those born here on our shores. Under the international refugee convention, to which Australia is a signatory, we are:

... responsible for ensuring we do not return people to countries where their life or freedom would be threatened by their race, religion, nationality or membership of a social group, or political opinion.

We have established strong integration services to assist migrants to settle into the Australian community. We are helping people move into the workforce and become self-sufficient. We are also supporting people in finding a new home here in Australia. Yet for the past 17 years, under both Labor and coalition governments, we have contradicted these efforts by having in place a policy that requires repayment from legitimate refugees for the time that they were being held in detention while it was decided whether they were legitimate refugees. Ironically, those who were deemed not to be legitimate refugees and who were deported have not been subject, in an effective sense, to paying fees. The impact that this debt has had is considerable, both financially and emotionally, on those trying to start their lives over, who are in a foreign country, who may be without many of their family members and who are still trying to find their feet.

I know that the issue of deterrence has been put forward by the coalition in relation to this, but the legitimate refugees who come here are desperate because of the circumstances in their homeland. I know references have been made to Afghanistan and the war there since 2001; I think we need to put it into perspective. The number of people seeking asylum is a clear function of and directly related to what is happening in their homeland—to chaos, to political instability, to extreme poverty, to hunger and, in particular, to political persecution. I think we need to consider that those are the primary factors. If we want to stem the flow of people coming to our shores, we ought to consider the causes of that. We also ought to have effective border protection policies and target those who are responsible—that is, the people smugglers, who engage in a vile trade and who exploit some of the most vulnerable people on this planet.

When it comes to deterrence, this whole issue of debt collection does not make sense in economic terms. There is no real net gain—I think about 2½ per cent of the debt has been recovered over the years—but there is a considerable cost involved in recovering that debt. It is a punitive policy; it does not make financial sense. This whole concept of thinking that having a financial penalty will deter people from coming here is absurd. I do not think that these people have assets of any note, and it is a petty and punitive policy. I do not think that these refugees have left behind some prime real estate in Kabul or Kandahar to come here. These are people, by and large, who are desperate for asylum, for a variety of reasons, and trying to recover debt in this way seems petty and vindictive. I will support this bill and I commend the government for introducing it.