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Thursday, 16 August 2012
Page: 5503


Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (10:33): I rise to support my colleagues Senator Christine Milne, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and the other Greens who have spoken so clearly on this bill, the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. We had the opportunity here, if Labor had been willing to work with the Greens, to come up with solutions that would have saved lives and that would have allowed us to ensure that refugee rights were respected and that we honoured our international obligations. Instead, Labor have chosen to work with the coalition and are returning us to the John Howard Pacific solution. But, when you look at it closely, there are aspects of this bill that make it even worse than what we saw in those years. Island prisons will be established. Countries like Nauru and PNG will be left to administer a policy that will violate the refugee convention. That would be unacceptable and unlawful if it occurred in Australia. We would have to conclude that one of the objectives here is to keep the whole refugee issue away from scrutiny. That is one of the reasons this is occurring.

In this debate there have been many myths, deceptions and lies that have been perpetrated—the claim that the Pacific solution made more boats come, that asylum seekers threaten our border—but that is just propaganda to put pressure on people, to scare people and to try to win support for a policy that is so inhumane. What the coalition and Labor are uniting here to do is not about saving lives or about compassion; it is a political fix. It is a political fix that is incredibly dangerous for so many individuals.

Also, if we look towards the future, we can anticipate that there will be many more refugees in the world, due to economy-collapsing countries, wars, pressure on different populations and the climate change impact. We know that there could be millions of refugees in this world, and Australia has a clear responsibility here. We are known by many people—and I think we like to think of ourselves—not just as a country with a fair go but also as being generous of spirit and generous in a very real way. But this piece of legislation takes us in a totally different direction.

When we consider what we have seen from the parties that are now pushing this legislation we need to remember that there is a long history of abuse of refugees behind this. We violated international maritime law with the way the Tampa crisis was handled and we are violating our own obligations under UN treaties. That means that so many innocent people have been treated appallingly—damage that will, in many cases, last all their lives. And we are about to continue that terrible pattern of treating refugees. What is happening is that we are imprisoning people who desire what I believe most people in the world desire—I am sure it is a common factor among all of us here—and that is to wake up in the morning and know that your family is safe, your friends are safe and your livelihood is fairly secure. That is what these people are trying to secure.

The other night in this parliament I read out extensive quotes from a statement that has been released by the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Diocese of Jaffna in Sri Lanka. It painted a deeply troubling, ongoing situation for the Tamil community in that country. I urge people to look up that statement if they want to understand why so many Tamils are fleeing Sri Lanka, because it becomes quite clear. The civil war in that country may have ended in 2009 but many people are now calling what is occurring in that country ethnic cleansing, with Tamil communities losing their land and their livelihood. There is a description in that statement of fisherfolk who can no longer exercise their daily fishing plans because they are not allowed to fish in certain areas, Hindu shrines that have been taken over or destroyed, and the army and sections of the Sinhalese community taking over businesses, land and communities. This has much to do with why people from that land are fleeing to Australia.

If you look at the situation in Afghanistan, instability continues to be extreme. The war, the conflict and the violence are making life impossible for many people. We know that many Afghanis get to a point where they realise that the only hope for them and for their families and communities is to leave. And they have a right to come to this country and to seek asylum. This morning I went to a very moving event in this parliament for World Humanitarian Day, and part of it was to remember the many aid workers who have been killed in the line of duty. I had not realised how many had died. Senator Bob Carr was one of the speakers, and he spoke about Afghanistan and the violence against women. He said that 80 per cent of women in that country continue to experience violence. The sexual exploitation and the ruthlessness of the Taliban and some of their supporters is driving people out of that country—again, they have a right to come here, and we have a responsibility and a duty under international law to accept those people who come to our country. One day I do believe—I always try to be positive—that we will get back to that, but right now the legislation before us is more than deeply troubling; it is deeply anti-human. That parties could unite on this is quite extraordinary.

With respect to the expert panel's recommendations, we were pleased that they picked up on some of the work that Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has been putting forward on safer pathways and taking more refugees, and I acknowledge that many other groups have advocated those positions. But so many of the recommendations are a huge setback, repealing the few human rights protections included in the offshore processing legislation that went through in 2001. We should never do that, and we are about to see all the Labor and coalition MPs voting for that to happen.

Punishing asylum seekers who arrive by boat is a breach of the refugee convention, and that should not change. We need to remember the mental health problems that occurred among so many of the refugees who were put into detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. The people who are voting for this legislation are ignoring the lessons that we learnt about what that form of detention does to people. We know that most of those people settled in this country. Australia now has the responsibility of looking after them and trying to address those mental health problems that should never have occurred, but they did occur because we were holding people indefinitely with limited freedom of movement. This is what has happened in those island prisons in the past and this is what we are about to inflict on people.

Then we come to the issue of the expert panel recommending that the removal of child asylum seekers from Australia be facilitated. You would have to say that one of the darkest chapters in this is how we have treated minors and children. I pay tribute to Chilout. They worked for years to get children out of detention and that became a great rallying call for organisations like Refugee Action Collective, Chilout and Labor for Refugees. Incredibly important work was done, and there were achievements, but now it looks like it is going to be wound back. My colleagues have asked the questions. We know that 220 asylum seekers have arrived just recently, and they are the first ones to be moved to these islands. How many children are there? What is going to happen to them? There are no answers. The lack of humanity is one of the aspects of this that I have found most troubling, and we are going to inflict that on children and put them into these island prisons. There is an unwillingness to come clean about what will happen and how it will be managed. They talk about transparency, openness and health facilities but none of that is made clear. And, in the end, none of it is an answer when you are locked up in an island prison indefinitely and your rights have been removed so completely.

Another aspect of the expert panel's recommendations that very much shocked me was that they left open the possibility that boats may be turned back in the future. We have heard the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott, speak about this whole package, and this is where Labor has got its own tactics so wrong, let alone the approach to refugees. He said the boats will keep coming, which they will. People will want to escape the terrible situations in which they find themselves. Mr Abbott has said that the government will be to blame if the boats keep coming, even though what we have here is the coalition's Pacific solution. But there is the further aspect of leaving it open to turn back the boats. We have heard naval people say that that simply should not happen.

I want to put on the record the organisations that this week made such a clear appeal to the government that this legislation, the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012, should not pass. These organisations have put so much effort into working on this issue, working with refugees to ensure their rights are recognised, helping them to settle in this country, often picking up the work that government should do: visiting the detention centres, giving the day-to-day support, often taking food to those people in those centres, trying to contact family—again, doing the work that the government should do. These organisations came together this week to call on the Prime Minister not to pass this legislation and to point out the very deep problems from the expert panel's recommendations. It is important that their work is acknowledged and recognised.

The organisations that wrote to the Prime Minister are: Amnesty International Australia; Asylum Seeker Resource Centre; Asylum Seekers Christmas Island; Asylum Seeker Welcome Centre; Bridge for Asylum Seekers Foundation; Balmain for Refugees; Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project; Sonia Caton, migration agent; CASE for Refugees; Centre for Human Rights Education, Curtin University; Chilout; Coalition for Asylum Seekers Refugees and Detainees; Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network; the Rt. Hon. Malcolm Fraser AC, CH; Sandra Gifford, Professor of Anthropology and Refugee Studies; Human Rights Law Centre; Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project; International Detention Coalition; Ged Kearney, President, Australian Council of Trade Unions; Melbourne Catholic Migrant & Refugee Office; Professor William Maley AM FASSA; Dr Anne Pedersen, Associate Professor; Refugee Council of Australia; Refugee and Immigration Legal Service; the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia; Welcome to Australia; Dr Savitri Taylor, Associate Professor and Director of Research; Tamara Wood, Nettheim Doctoral Teaching Fellow and PhD candidate.

I congratulate their extensive work for refugees in this country and, as you have heard from other Greens speakers, we remain deeply committed to continuing the work for refugees and working with these organisations to ensure that we return to a recognition of refugee rights.

I mentioned at the start of my speech that so much of the debate has relied on lies and deception in many of the comments that have been made about asylum seekers. I want to deal with some of those myths: for example, that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are committing an illegal act. This is so deeply wrong. I believe the majority of the coalition members and Labor members who have spoken on this, like the Leader of the Opposition, must know that, but they continue with this deception. It is not illegal to seek asylum, regardless of how someone arrives in this country. The term, if you come by boat, is 'irregular maritime arrival'. That is the legal description but there is nothing illegal about it. The constant repetition of that lie relies on the old adage—if you repeat a lie long enough people will come to believe it. It is part of the propaganda that our borders are under threat and these people have no right to come to this country when they clearly have.

I also want to address some of the comments that, disappointingly, have been made by Senator Doug Cameron. He spoke on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012 back in June when we were coming to the end of that session. He spent quite a bit of his argument trying to blame the Greens for a solution not being found. Let us remember that what he was pushing for then was the Malaysia solution, which asked the Greens and all of us to break the law and our responsibilities under the refugee convention. The High Court made a very clear ruling on this and here we saw Senator Cameron take a very irresponsible position and try to blame the Greens for not achieving a solution.

Now we have Senator Cameron going for the Pacific solution. It is worth remembering, when he spoke in June on that bill, that he said he had argued his opposition to the Pacific solution continually over many years. Yes, he has, and for a lot of the period we were able to work with Senator Cameron and others in Labor on this issue. I acknowledge that, as part of the Labor caucus, members have to vote for legislation that their caucus has decided will come through. But we know that Labor members of parliament—senators and members of the House of Representatives—can speak against bills that their caucus has decided on and cannot be expelled for that. Over the years we have seen many courageous members do that when wrong legislation, like this, comes through. That is what Senator Cameron should have stuck with, rather than run the scam that it is all the Greens' fault because we would not vote for the Malaysian solution.

We will continue to work, and are always ready to work, with Labor people like Labor for Refugees. They are critical of what the Labor government is doing here and have recognised the importance of the Greens' position, including what we have advanced around safer pathways and regional assessment. We have seen in how Labor has conducted this debate in recent months that it has not been a compromise. It has not been a compromise to improve the situation for refugees. Again, they could have worked with my colleagues Senator Christine Milne and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young to come up with solutions that provided those pathways, that helped ensure that there were positive solutions. But they have not made refugees welcome. They have moved to a position where they have provided no option but for refugees to get onto boats. As I described in those situations in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, when people are desperate to leave because of violence, and the abuse and the exploitation have got to that point, deterrence according to laws in Australia are meaningless; they are thinking about how they can escape their situation. The issue of saving lives is absolutely paramount for us. We could have achieved that by recognising the rights of refugees and our responsibilities under the convention, and we will continue to return to that work.