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Thursday, 28 June 2012
Page: 4789


Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (11:11): I rise to speak on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. I indicate that I will not be supporting this bill, and I would like to go on the record as to why.

There is a great deal of angst and sadness in the Australian community, and obviously in this parliament as well, about the most recent events where there has been loss of life in the sea due to people having come on boats seeking asylum in Australia, and of course there is increasing pressure for something to be done. I think it is a matter of great pride that Australians are increasingly so concerned. It is a sign of what essentially good-hearted people we are that this is something that the public is requiring politicians to be taking action and a stand on.

It is really important to remember that this is one of many incidents that have occurred over a long period of time. In a sense, the suffering that we see on our TV screens when boats sink is the tip of the iceberg of a massive number of people who seek asylum, leaving situations of high conflict, persecution, violence and risk of arbitrary death. They are so desperate that they choose to leave their homelands, their families and friends to face a risky, uncertain future somewhere far away. So, while it is clearly absolutely abhorrent to see what has happened recently, we must not forget that this suffering is the precursor to those choices that people ultimately make to get on a boat and to try to seek asylum in Australia. That is why it is important that, in determining where we can go in dealing with this, we have to be really clear about the entire situation. We must not risk having just a knee-jerk reaction to deal with something that we cannot get away from at the moment because it is on our television screens. This situation is there all the time and, as a humane country, we need to recognise why we initially signed the refugee convention, what the basis of that convention requires and how we can fulfil our obligations to be humane and to offer sanctuary to those people who are far less fortunate than ourselves.

Australians desperately, genuinely want a solution, and this bill purports to offer a solution. That is why there is such pressure from many aspects of Australian society to grasp it with both hands, because it looks like it is going to solve the problem that we are facing right now. It is my view that this bill is a solution for politicians so that it looks like we are doing something decisive; like we are hearing the concerns and we are moving to act on them. I firmly believe this is not a real solution for refugees at all. Essentially this bill will not do the very thing that it purports to do, the very thing that it is supposedly designed to do, and that is to save lives and reduce suffering. It is so attractive to think that it would, because we want an answer, we want a solution—but it is my firm view that it will not do that; it will not reduce suffering and it will not save lives. If desperate people, facing potential arbitrary death or violence or rape or constant persecution to the extent that they cannot live in safety, make the choice to flee conflict and seek safety and some kind of better future, then they are making a choice between dying or living without hope and gambling on the future. They are clearly prepared to take that gamble.

Unless we have a solution that offers people hope that they can achieve asylum, offers them a chance of being processed and not languishing in refugee camps for decades—in some cases without any hope of life, any reason for living, any ability to form lasting relationships and not knowing whether they will be able to continue with those relationships and often without the ability to work or to do things meaningfully in their lives, and they do not know when the end of that will be—then they will continue to risk their lives for the chance of a better future.

It is interesting to consider what we would do in that situation ourselves. If we can have empathy with what it must be like to be in that situation, it does not take a lot of imagination to realise that many of us would make exactly the same choices. In 2010 the Red Cross conducted a survey of Australians to find out what they would do, to see whether they could understand why asylum seekers make the choices they make. The statistics were very enlightening—86 per cent of those surveyed said they would flee to a safe country if they lived in a conflict zone. If we are subject to conflict we will flee. That is what people do all over the world. If we have families, if we have children, we seek to protect them whatever it takes. That is what Australians said, and that is what asylum seekers do. Ninety-four per cent of those surveyed said they would use all their money to get to a safe country. It is suggested that these are mercenary people and that they are prepared to buy their way out of trouble, but that is something that human beings will do. If it is a choice between living in unimaginably intolerable conditions, living with the risk of death at any moment and living with the risk of seeing your family suffer, as opposed to being able to take a risk and make a new life, human beings are willing to take that risk and that is what these asylum seekers are doing.

On Saturday I joined with many other people in Adelaide to walk together in the Welcome to Australia march. As I was walking along, I spoke to a man next to me and asked him about his background. His name was Saad, and he had been a refugee from Iraq. Saad would have been in his forties. I asked him about his story and he said to me, 'It is a long story but I will cut it short. I fled Iraq as a refugee and I ended up in the Philippines. I was assessed in the Philippines as a refugee and I spent 20 years in the Philippines waiting to be resettled. I was a young man when I fled Iraq. I ultimately formed a relationship and married a Filipino woman and I had four children. But I was not allowed to work in the Philippines. I was there for 20 years, and I had to work to support my family so I worked illegally. Then I was apprehended at one point and I went to jail'. I said I had heard that sometimes people who were in those sorts of situations in those countries, who were picked up for illegal work, were treated badly in jail. He did not say very much, but he acknowledged that, yes, he had been in jail and he was beaten; they were dehumanised and they were treated very badly.

Saad waited 20 years to be resettled and then he made a choice that any of us would make if we had the opportunity—he decided to take the chance of coming to Australia for another life because of the intolerable way he was living at the time. Saad was able to fly to Australia. He did not have to take the risky boat trip. When he arrived he was placed in Villawood Detention Centre for some time. Ultimately he was allowed to stay and he moved to Adelaide. Six months ago his wife and his four children joined him. Saad is an artist and he is also an architectural engineer. He is now in the process of upgrading his qualifications so that they can be recognised in Australia.

Saad is very grateful for having been accepted in Australia, and he is absolutely delighted to have his children with him again, having been separated from them for three years. His daughter is studying art at university and his youngest son is 13. Saad will be a great Australian citizen. He has the initiative, the courage and the resourcefulness that surely we prize in people contributing to this society. Saad made choices because of the situation he was in. There is this idea that people who wait in the queue will ultimately be processed—but there is no queue. That is the point he made to me—there is no queue. How long should one wait patiently? We can see why people make the choices they make.

I will not be supporting this bill, because it is absolutely flawed. It will basically sidestep the concerns about human rights protections raised in the High Court decision that found the Malaysia solution to be invalid. This bill will allow the government to send people anywhere. People could be sent to Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria—they all signed up to the Bali process. We know the intention of the government is to send people to Malaysia and we are very aware of what people face when they go to Malaysia. The risks they face there are probably far worse than what I heard about from Saad.

I turn now to this idea that Nauru was some kind of nirvana—that those were the good old days and that things were fine there. I very clearly remember what was happening at the time. People were sent away to that island in the Pacific, to Nauru, where it was almost impossible for them to get legal advice and assistance, and where lawyers were deliberately prevented from seeing people. It was a convenient way to get this problem off our televisions screens—out of sight, out of mind.

Australia has fundamental obligations to take responsibility for the people who come here and to process them on our continent. The idea of outsourcing asylum seekers to other nations ignores the fact that we are one of the wealthiest nations in this region and that we have obligations under the refugee convention which we should be meeting—so that we are indeed protecting people's lives and well-being.

This is not about purity; this is about what, in the big picture, is needed to save people's lives. We need to seek a comprehensive solution which accepts that desperate people will always seek asylum and that it is logical for desperate people to do so. We see that in the very choices they make. They get on a boat knowing they are risking their lives, but they choose to do so anyway because the status quo—staying where they are—is unimaginable for them. We need to accept that they will choose to take those risks and we therefore need to make the alternative to those risks far better. We need to provide people with hope.

If we are really serious about saving lives, if we are really serious about wanting to protect people from the risk of drowning, why is it that we do not currently have a clear code, a clear requirement, for our maritime forces to intervene at the earliest possible opportunity to save those people's lives? The report of the Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident, which inquired into the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the SIEVX in October 2001, said:

The Committee … finds it disturbing that no review of the SIEV X episode was conducted by any agency in the aftermath of the tragedy. No such review occurred until after the Committee’s inquiry had started and public controversy developed over the Australian response to SIEV X.

While there were reasonable grounds to explain the Australian response to SIEV X, the Committee finds it extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of a theatre of intensive Australian operations, and remain undetected until three days after the event, without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision making circles. The Committee considers that it is particularly unusual that neither of the interdepartmental oversight bodies, the Illegal Immigration Information Oversight Committee and Operational Coordination Committee, took action to check whether the event revealed systemic problems in the intelligence and operational relationship.

If we are really serious about saving lives, why are we not looking at these other ways to intervene and protect lives as well? Recommendation 13A of the committee report into the SIEVX incident was:

The Committee recommends that operational orders and mission tasking statements for all ADF operations, including those involving whole of government approaches, explicitly incorporate relevant international and domestic obligations.

That is something I would like to see.

I think it is absolutely important that, in dealing with this, we do not deal with it simplistically. Our approach should not just be aimed at getting it off our TV screens and placating public opinion—making them think we are doing something decisive when we are not really dealing with the problem at all. We must offer the people who are risking their lives the hope that there is an alternative. That is when they will stop risking their lives.