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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 721

Mrs MOYLAN (9:23 PM) —From 2001 to 2005 I, with others in this place—the member for McMillan was one—worked to encourage changes to the Migration Act and its administration. Concern heightened in the public domain about the treatment of asylum seekers and the administration of detention centres, forcing important changes.

Changes included an agreement that 12,000 or so refugees living in the purgatory of the temporary protection visa system would be given permanent visas and that the Ombudsman would regularly report to this parliament as to why people continued to be held in immigration detention. These changes resulted in a greater level of public and parliamentary scrutiny. One of the single most important changes was that children would no longer be held in detention centres, except as a last resort.

Notwithstanding the inclusion of a declaration in the Migration Act to this effect, today we have over 1,000 children in detention. I notice a call by a Greens senator to have another investigation regarding children in detention, while the matter could be immediately resolved by honouring the existing declaration, and I would strongly urge the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship to do so. Detention centres are no place for children.

We have seen the unedifying spectacle and the treatment of Seena, the nine-year-old boy orphaned through the Christmas Island tragedy in December last year. This is an example of political callousness at its very worst, and I rise today to call on the government and the opposition to stop the political tactics and to end the escalating, hysterical rhetoric over who can produce the toughest policies, and for men and women of conscience in this place to call for the end of the politicisation of asylum policy.

In regard to this specific motion, I appreciate and share many of the concerns outlined by my colleague the member for Cook in bringing this motion to this place. In particular, I share the concern about the many women who daily face life-threatening situations in refugee camps. Of the 10.4 million refugees currently in the world, according to the UN, Australia’s generous resettlement program will take less than 0.0001 per cent per annum. This is the number that will find their way to our shores each year, and it would therefore be reasonable to craft policy in proportion to the dimension of the challenge faced in Australia—not to ramp it up with political rhetoric.

The real deficiency, though, of the current system is that in 1996, by a deliberate decision of the government, the number of onshore protection visas and the number of visas available under the Special Humanitarian Program were linked, so there is now a shortfall of places for special humanitarian visas. However, this motion intimates that somehow onshore applicants are less entitled to and less worthy of permanent protection than offshore applicants. It seeks to allot 3,750 visas to onshore applicants, or 787 fewer visas than the number granted to onshore applicants in 2009-10. This presupposes that asylum seekers would again be held in indefinite detention, or that temporary protection visas would be reinstated.

This would create the situation which in the past prolonged the pain and prevented the resettlement of asylum seekers. Apart from the obvious human trauma this policy engendered, it was administratively demanding and costly. The logical solution would be to delink the two programs and to allocate specific numbers for each of those programs. The fact is that once an asylum seeker reaches our shores we have a legal, social and moral obligation to assess the claim and then provide asylum. This obligation must be separated from our voluntary commitment to offshore resettlement programs.

The contention that temporary protection visas and mandatory detention will in some way stop the boats is not supported by history. Mandatory detention was introduced as a deterrent by the Labor government in 1992, when a small number of people arrived by boat. Ten years later, there had been 5,000 boat arrivals. In the five years prior to temporary protection visas being introduced, there were 3,103 boat arrivals. In the five years following the introduction of temporary protection visas, there were over 11,000 arrivals.

If we are serious about stemming the flow of refugees, we must desist from punitive policies and join with our regional neighbours and the international community to prevent the tyranny, genocide and war which cause people to flee from their homelands. We must prepare to share the burden of those who come to the region seeking asylum. After all, few people would choose to leave their home and make such a perilous journey without good cause.

Australia is working hard to restore peace and the rule of law in Afghanistan, through diplomatic and military commitments and through our government and non-government aid agencies. Our nation has tragically sacrificed 23 young Australians in that cause. It therefore seems to me incongruous that, in committing to restore order in a country in which we recognise the dangerous conditions, when the persecuted escape and come seeking sanctuary we lock them up in prisons which we have conveniently labelled ‘detention centres’.

I call on all my colleagues from all parties in this chamber to speak up for a bipartisan resolve. That resolve is to step up our diplomatic efforts, for a policy proportionate to the real dimensions of the issue and to explore durable, humane options to stem the terrible toll of refugees forced to leave their homelands. The real test of our humanity and decency is how we manage when people seeking asylum come knocking on our door.

Debate interrupted.