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Tuesday, 9 October 2012
Page: 11633


Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (18:30): I will not be supporting this motion on the designation of Papua New Guinea as a regional processing country. I think everyone in Australia had the same reaction when they witnessed the horrific sight of boats going down and people losing their lives in terrible circumstances. That was especially the case with Christmas Island, but it also relates to many events over the years when we have lost lives as people have tried to make their way to this country.

The Greens have said for a significant time that if the concern is protecting people, stopping people from taking those high-level risks that could potentially result in the loss of their life, we need to provide safer pathways and a more orderly system. What might that mean? It would mean, for a start, lifting Australia's humanitarian intake, because at the moment it is the lowest that it has been for 30 years. It would mean a comprehensive regional plan of action that also includes taking more people directly from places like Indonesia and Malaysia. We know that in those countries there are thousands of people waiting in camps, many of whom are genuine refugees and have already been found to be so, but they have no light at the end of the tunnel. Some of the 8,000 people who have been waiting in camps in Indonesia, for example, have been waiting for many years. That is not surprising, given that the UNHCR up until a while ago had only two people processing their claims and their budget is slated to decline over coming years.

The experts working in and supporting people in those camps tell us that, if you provide people who are in those camps with an orderly pathway out, they are much more likely to stay there and wait for genuine resettlement. We hear a lot about the people smugglers' business model, and the people smugglers' business model is based on desperation. It is based on people waiting in those camps for years at a time, often already having been found to be genuine refugees, with no clear exit. If I were in that situation and I had waited in a camp for several years and someone came to me and said that if I gave them a bit of money they would get me and my family out, I would probably take that opportunity as well. I think most people in that situation would do the same. Until we take many more people directly out of the camps in Indonesia and Malaysia and send a clear message to all those people who are in there that if they wait then they will be resettled, potentially in Australia, people are still going to come to this country.

Unless we make this country as unattractive as the place from which they are fleeing, people are always going to come. Harsh deterrence does not stop the boats and does not stop the drownings. We saw 353 people die when the SIEVX met its tragic fate, and that was when the Pacific solution and the John Howard government arrangements were in full swing. Unless we make Australia as bad as the Taliban has made Afghanistan, people are going to continue to come here because we are a better bet, and we are a democracy. This is why, when we had the opportunity to debate this matter recently in this place, I and many others came away with a heavy heart. We had a real opportunity not to pander to the worst in us in this country but to talk to the best in us. We could have taken the opportunity to have a national debate about how to deal with this complex and global problem. Anyone who thinks there is a simple solution to this is not paying attention. It involves actions here, it involves actions in countries where there are camps, it involves actions in the transit countries and it involves taking actions in the source countries.

What we could have done was have a debate free from the hysteria about the small number of people, comparatively speaking, who are coming to this country by boat, and we could have asked what would be a genuine regional solution that does not involve us contracting ourselves out of the obligations in the refugee convention. This is the convention that we signed up to voluntarily, and the High Court said that what the government was trying to do was not consistent with those obligations we signed up to, so we were at a fork in the road. We could have then come up with a set of solutions that was consistent, or we could have tried to contract out and change the law. That is ultimately what happened. Instead, we could have come out of it with a new comprehensive regional plan of action, along the lines that I have just outlined and along the lines that almost all of the experts recommended to the Houston committee. But, instead of going back to Fraser, Labor has taken us back to Howard—and we in this country have missed a real opportunity to repeat the successes of the years after the Vietnam War.

It is instructive to remember what we did then. Yes, it was a different geopolitical situation and, yes, it was a different point in history, but in the decade after the Vietnam War we took in between 90,000 and 100,000 refugees and their families. We said, 'We see these people are fleeing and coming here by boat—let's not have that situation; let's have a comprehensive regional plan of action.' We should not gild the lily and pretend that that plan was some kind of ideal solution—it wasn't. It was harsh and there were debates about it at the time. But what we said was that we, as a developed country in this region, had the capacity to bear a bigger share of this regional and global burden—and so we took people in. I think that, if you asked anyone in this country now, they would say that approach was a success. If we had spoken to that—if we had spoken to the fact that everyone in this country has someone in their family, in their street or in their workplace who came here as a refugee, or whose parents came here as a refugee, and who they think is a good person—we could have gone down that road again. But we have not done so. Instead, we have gone back to the Howard era.

The Howard era involved mandatory indefinite detention. As a reminder of what that entails, it is worth referring to an Amnesty International report in which they tell us what happened the last time we had offshore processing on Manus. The report says:

The ongoing suffering of asylum seekers is illustrated by the case of an Iraqi Christian who was detained on Manus Island between October 2001 and July 2003 under the "Pacific Solution".

In May 2002, after suffering from depression, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. After another 10 months on Manus, he was transferred to Baxter detention centre in South Australia for medical review. His condition worsened, and in November 2003, still in detention in Baxter, he attempted to commit suicide by ingesting glass fragments from a broken fluorescent tube and by attempting to electrocute himself.

After six months in Australia, this man would have been able to appeal his asylum application through the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT). But on 21 January 2004, just eight days short of the six month deadline, he was handcuffed, forcibly removed from Baxter and sent to Nauru.

Eventually, the detainee was recognised as a refugee and was resettled in Sweden.

But that resettlement came only after he had first attempted to take his own life. That is what indefinite mandatory detention does to people. The tragedy is: we do not need to do it but we are about to do it again.

As I have made clear, I do not support this motion. But it is also clear that it is going to get up because the government and the coalition will vote together. Given that it is going to get up and given everything we know about mandatory detention, there needs to be a time limit on how long someone will spend on Manus. The experts have told us that, if you keep someone longer than a year, you are almost certain to do harm to their mental health and to their wellbeing. For that reason, I have what I consider a very reasonable amendment to propose. It is one that anyone who is interested in making sure we preserve the mental health of refugees—even if you are in favour of the government's proposed solution—should support.

I move:

That the following words be added to the motion: "and calls on the government to put in place a 12 month time limit on immigration detention in Papua New Guinea."

There can be no basis for opposing this amendment if what we are concerned about is the protection of life and the protection of refugees. As I said, we were told at the start that that is the reason we need these laws—that we are concerned about people's lives. If that is right, we should be just as concerned about someone who takes their own life in a detention centre as we are about someone who drowns at sea. That means taking all reasonable steps to protect the mental health of refugees and that means putting a 12-month time limit on their detention.

If this amendment is not supported, it demonstrates that the so-called no-advantage principle is really about indefinite detention and detention for longer than a year. That is something a spotlight needs to be shone upon. I was talking earlier about camps where you can wait five or six years. If you were to take the mathematical average of how long people spend in Malaysian camps—given that a lot of people spend their whole lives there—you would, on one calculation, get 76 years. So, if the government is not going to support this amendment, a question that has to be answered is: just how long can someone stay on Manus Island or Nauru? If the limit is not 12 months, what is it? Is it two years? Is it three years? Is it five years? Is it 10 years? Are we being asked to again sign off on indefinite mandatory detention? Are we saying to people, 'You are now going to go to Nauru or PNG to spend an indefinite amount of time in detention'? We know what that will do to people.

We need to remember that the UNHCR has refused to be involved in offshore processing on PNG, just as it has refused to be involved with offshore processing on Nauru. PNG is not even a full signatory to the refugee convention. The government of Papua New Guinea acceded to the 1951 refugee convention and its 1967 protocol back in 1986—but with reservations relating to refugees' rights in the areas of employment, housing, education, freedom of movement, non-penalisation of refugees unlawfully present, expulsion and access to naturalisation. All seven reservations are still applicable.

We know that in PNG there are no facilities that can house people safely. We know that they were still importing asbestos as a building material up until July 2010, that it is in a dengue fever and malaria zone and that prominent PNG politicians say they are going to take legal action against this detention centre because it contravenes PNG law.

For all of those reasons, I do hope that this very reasonable amendment will find support. If it does not, I would invite members from the government side to tell us in what is left of this debate, before the motion is passed by this House, for just how long it is okay to keep someone in mandatory detention.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. DGH Adams ): Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Wilkie: I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.