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Thursday, 16 August 2012
Page: 5624


Senator BOB CARR (New South WalesMinister for Foreign Affairs) (16:36): I am not closing the debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. Twelve years ago I had the honour of being Premier of New South Wales, charged with the responsibility for the Sydney Olympics. Together, with the support of all of the people of Australia, we helped present to the world what came to be called the spirit of Sydney 2000. It was that spirit—the spirit of the people of Sydney and the people of Australia—that brought the games to such glorious success. We were able, with good heart, to emphasise the welcoming and generous character of the people of Australia. We told the world of our pride in our diversity.

That spirit was based on a profound reality—the great changes that had transformed this nation as a result of the bipartisanship which had prevailed on all matters relating to immigration for more than 40 years, going back to the prime ministerships of Harold Holt, John Gorton and Gough Whitlam. Here let me recall how that bipartisanship prevailed even in the bitter period after 1975 when the Fraser government had to deal with the issue of the Vietnamese boat people. To the credit of all parties and to the enduring benefit of Australia, Australian humanity and the essential decency of the Australian people, those policies won over party politics. Could there be a finer example of where bipartisanship and true national interest went hand in hand? That is the first perspective I ask the Senate to take towards the legislation arising from the Houston report. When it comes to the response of the Australian people, when they make their considered and informed judgement, I will back the spirit of Sydney 2000 over the spirit of Tampa 2001 any day.

My second perspective is Australia's special position as a nation of immigrants. Nobody disputes the fact that it is for Australia and its government, parliament and people to decide who comes here. But our responsibility for decisions about immigration, including refugees, is only part of the story. The overwhelming majority of us belong to families whose members as individuals made the historic decision to come here—a quarter of us within this generation. Australia is made up of millions of individual stories, and some of the most inspiring of those Australian stories are told by refugees and the Australian children of refugees. Australia should be the last country in the world whose political leaders or media should seek to demonise or dehumanise refugees from any quarter.

The third perspective is Australia's international standing and reputation and, let me emphasise, our international obligations. We have accepted these obligations for more than half a century—binding obligations under the 1951 refugees convention and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. We have solemnly accepted these obligations, and they cannot be treated as something optional, to be set aside when inconvenient. We are bound equally by international covenants such as the Law of the Sea. Through our domestic implementation, these are all laws of this Commonwealth as much as any other legislation passed in this parliament. In the context of international laws and covenants by which we are bound, when you have said, 'Stop the boats,' you have said nothing. As a significant maritime nation, this island continent depends more than any other country on the order and stability underwritten by the observance of international laws and covenants.

After the United States and Canada, Australia has the largest annual humanitarian intake. Last financial year our intake was nearly 13,750. Including this year's expected intake, over the past five year our intake amounts to nearly 68,000 people. In the last 65 years, Australia has resettled over three-quarters of a million people through our humanitarian intake. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said during his address to the Lowy Institute for International Policy this year:

Australia’s continued commitment to taking in thousands of refugees each year, often from some of the most protracted situations in Africa and Asia, is to be commended. On a per-capita basis, Australia is UNHCR’s biggest resettlement country.

In 2011, Australia was the eighth largest donor to UNHCR, providing a total of $49 million, and our contribution to it has been increasing annually. Last year our core contribution was up by 11 per cent. Next year our contribution will increase by 12.5 per cent.

At present there are 43.7 million displaced people around the world, almost twice the population of Australia. Of these, more than 10 million are refugees. Four point three million people were newly displaced last year. That is a record for forced displacement around the world. Push factors are very real. The changing nature of forced displacement is testing the whole international humanitarian system. The whole situation is growing in complexity. According to Mr Guterres:

Conflict and upheaval, the traditional drivers of displacement, are increasingly compounded … by a number of inter-related and mutually reinforcing global trends. These include population growth, urbanization, food and water scarcity, and, most dramatically, the effects of climate change.

Two point seven million people have fled Afghanistan, 1.4 million have fled Iraq and 1.1 million have left Somalia. More than a quarter of Somalia's population has been displaced by conflict, violence, drought and famine. The UNHCR estimates—this is a very current example—that one million people have already been internally displaced in Syria and 1.5 million people inside Syria are in need of assistance. A hundred and fifty thousand people have fled Syria. They are living in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Just consider this: close to a quarter of them are children. Closer to home we have seen pressures in the region. In Myanmar, for example, at the current time poverty and discrimination are leading to the movement of ethnic minorities through that country and beyond it.

Few refugees return to their country of origin. Last year, for example, out of an estimated global refugee population of 10.4 million, only around 532,000 were repatriated voluntarily. That was the third lowest number of voluntary returns of refugees in a decade. As Mr Guterres said in his speech on the 60th anniversary of the refugee convention in December last year:

Resettlement opportunities also still fall far short of requirements, with spaces available for only ten per cent of the nearly 800,000 refugees needing resettlement worldwide today.

A protracted refugee situation is one where at least 25,000 refugees have been in exile for more than five years. If you use that definition, nearly two-thirds of the world's refugees—over six million people—are in protracted refugee situations. The burden of this is falling on less developed countries with less capacity than Australia to shoulder such a burden. The largest refugee-hosting countries in the world last year were Pakistan, Iran and Syria. It is estimated that Pakistan, for example, hosts 1.7 million refugees.

The government has taken steps to pave the way for this bill. The Prime Minister spoke with the President of Nauru and Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea on Tuesday. We already have an MOU in place with PNG, and PNG's prime minister, Peter O'Neill, has confirmed with the Prime Minister that his government's position on this remains unchanged. I spoke with the PNG foreign minister on Tuesday, and he reaffirmed PNG's willingness to work with Australia in developing responses to this challenging regional problem, including the establishment of a regional offshore processing centre on Manus Island. On Tuesday I instructed officials from my department to proceed immediately to PNG and Nauru to discuss next steps with government officials on implementation. Our High Commissioner to Nauru has spoken to the President of Nauru, who is supportive of Nauru's involvement in offshore processing arrangements. A reconnaissance team of officials will also visit there later this week to discuss implementation of processing centres in these locations.

But let me be clear: this is part of a larger plan. Mr Aristotle, whose work is so appreciated and observations are so valuable on this matter, articulated this plan:

… we want to build a system and the centrepiece of this is not Nauru and Manus. Everybody has been focusing on those things because of the politics, but the centrepiece is all about creating a proper and fairer system in the region for people to apply to - one that would be safe and produce outcomes in a more timely way

He said that in the Age on Wednesday. This is exactly what this government has been doing. As co-chairs of the Bali process, we are already working closely with Indonesia through the recently established Bali Process Regional Support Office to develop initiatives for cooperation under the regional cooperation framework.

The Houston report offers a course of reason, compassion and integrity. The people of Australia rightly expect us to protect the integrity of our borders. They expect us to preserve the integrity of Australia's international reputation. They expect us to observe the integrity of our humanitarian obligations. They expect us to maintain the integrity of our Defence Forces and their proper role in the protection and integrity of our shores. It goes without saying that in such a complex matter there will be—there must be—compromise, revisions, changes and flexibility. But compromise along the lines of the Houston report and this legislation does not mean any loss of integrity in pursuit of our national, regional and international interests and objectives, nor do I for one deny the legitimate contest of the political parties in this or any other matter. It is the lifeblood of a parliamentary democracy. But I do believe that we shall best serve Australia and best help save lives if we return to the spirit which informed the debate and moulded policy during the last three decades of the 20th century. In this spirit I commend the bill.