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Thursday, 9 December 2004
Page: 88

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (3:29 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (Senator Vanstone) to questions without notice asked by Senators Nettle and Bartlett today relating to Iraqi asylum seekers.

The questions Senator Nettle and I asked today were about Iraqi asylum seekers in detention on Nauru and in Australia. These people have not been successful in their asylum claims and have not been found to be refugees by the Australian government's assessment processes. Up to 20 people on Nauru are in that situation and there are a number in detention in Australia.

It is bad enough that people have been locked up for years—three years in the case of people on Nauru and even longer for those in Australia; some people have been locked up for four years, losing their freedom without having committed any crime—but the sorts of answers given by Minister Vanstone today were just extraordinary. To be unaware of the clear-cut advice of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees—the global body that assesses the situation for refugees in relation to Iraq—given to all member states, of which Australia is one, is pretty poor.

The minister was asked a compelling question that every one of these people who have been through unimaginable amounts of suffering, a lot of which has been inflicted by our government, faces. They are being told: `You are not a refugee. You have to go to Iraq.' But when they say, `Yes, we'll go,' they are told: `You can't. It's not safe. The borders are closed. You have to stay where you are.' Where they are is in detention either on Nauru or, in most cases, in Baxter. The central question for those people is: what do I do? The minister was asked a straightforward, pretty clear-cut question. It does not matter what you think about the government's refugee policy overall or its Pacific solution. The simple facts are that a group of people who have been locked up for over three years have been told that they are not refugees and that they have to go back to Iraq. They have said they want to go back but they cannot, and they have stayed locked up. It is like Catch-22.

I asked the minister the simple question of what those people are expected to do, and she talked about how saying `merry Christmas' to Muslims is offensive. I do not necessarily agree with that, but that is a different debate. I think it is broadly accepted in a multicultural society that people can celebrate Christmas as a festive season rather than as a religious occasion. The minister's response was to simply waffle on about whether or not to say `merry Christmas', `season's greetings' or `compliments of the season' to Muslims, when she had been asked a direct question: what are these people, who have been locked up for three years and counting, supposed to do? That just shows her extraordinary lack of any understanding of what these people are going through and what is being done to them.

I want to read an email from somebody on Nauru—I will not mention names—about the Iraqis who were recently given their decision after the government reassessed them and 27 were found to be refugees. It is great that they were found to be refugees, but why is it that they were locked up for three years on Nauru before they were found to be refugees? Now they are supposed to be grateful that are being given protection, when there is ample evidence of what they would face if they were to go back to Iraq anyway. The email says:

These people were ordered onto the bus to go to the other camp for the decision. A woman who is there, who cannot walk well or far had to stay behind and wait for her husband to bring back the news which either meant the beginning of a new life or more of the same in the camp. She dragged herself and her walking frame over the rough ground up to the gate to sit and wait.

I have been to this camp and can picture the gate. She would have been out in the open sun, and it is very hot on Nauru all year round. It continues:

Four hours later the bus returned with the Iraqis. Even those who had received a positive decision were miserable because they could not look their friends in the face. Women wept as they drove past this woman. No-one wanted to tell her that not only were she and her husband unsuccessful but that her husband on receiving the negative decision had collapsed and was taken to hospital. The sight of this woman sitting in the hot sun waiting was more than they could bear.

That is the situation of one family who is facing total despair and a total absence of hope. It is an absolute disgrace that these people are facing that situation and it is even more unforgivable that the minister apparently does not care and is not interested in telling them what they are supposed to do. She is not even aware of the clear-cut recommendations and advice of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees which says that these people should be given complimentary protection and that all returns, whether voluntary or forced, should be suspended. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.