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Thursday, 16 August 2012
Page: 5517

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (11:33): It is with a heavy heart that I rise to speak on the migration bill today. In my short time here this parliament has achieved some great things. Today would have to be the lowest day, and it deeply saddens me to be standing here as this parliament goes back to John Howard's evil, cruel and ineffective refugee laws.

The Greens had an alternate solution—one that would work, one that was legal and one that had humanity at its heart. The government had a choice. It could have worked with the Greens to implement the ways to discourage asylum seekers from getting onto risky, leaky boats by giving them other, safer options. But they made a choice to bargain with the coalition and to bring back the Pacific Solution. And, while they have said they will adopt the aspects of the Greens' plan which the Houston report endorsed, where is the progress on those fronts? We just have this unseemly haste to force people out of sight, out of mind, onto Nauru and Manus Island to indefinite detention.

I heard today and yesterday some members of the opposition call asylum seekers 'illegal arrivals', and obviously we hear that quite a bit. It really aggravates me. It is not illegal to seek asylum. These desperate people are completely within their legal rights to seek our help. It is Australia that is shirking our obligations to deal with them fairly and to uphold their human rights.

There has also been a lot of talk about push and pull factors and a solution to this intractable problem. Sadly, there is no solution. We will always have asylum seekers. Wherever there is war, conflict or persecution on religious grounds, people will be moved to flee their homes, their countries and everything they know to seek safety for themselves and their families. Deterrence will not work unless the circumstances they are met with are just as heinous, destructive and life threatening as the circumstances they are fleeing from. Australia would have to be as inhumane as the Taliban for asylum seekers to be deterred from seeking a better and safer life here.

I want to quote from the submission by the University of New South Wales Gilbert + Tobin Centre for Public Law to the expert panel:

All that deterrence strategies can achieve is to divert asylum seekers into equally irregular, equally risky routes to other countries in which protection may be found or to trap them in places where they receive little or no protection. We are unlikely through such means to spare asylum seekers from unnecessary suffering and premature death. We will simply spare ourselves from having to witness that suffering and death.

We saw with the last time we had the spuriously named Pacific Solution based on the tenet of deterrence that it simply did not work. Boats still sank after we opened Nauru. Three hundred and fifty-three women and children died on the SIEV X after we opened Nauru. Desperate people will keep seeking our help because they feel they have no other option to save the lives of their families and to give their children a chance at a better life.

The Refugee Council of Australia share this view. They say in their submission to the expert panel that 'a resumption of removing asylum seekers to Nauru would be virtually valueless as a deterrent'. In their submission to the Senate committee, the Refugee Council elaborate on this. They say:

Under the offshore processing arrangements in place under the Pacific Solution, access to legal advice was extremely limited and the credibility of refugee status determination procedures was highly questionable. Many asylum seekers whose claims for protection were rejected under offshore status determination processes experienced persecution or serious threats to their safety and security after returning to their countries of origin. As many as 20 of them are believed to have been killed … Asylum seekers affected by the Pacific Solution were detained in remote facilities for often lengthy periods (up to six years in some cases), to the serious detriment of their health, particularly mental health, and general wellbeing. Throughout the life of the Pacific Solution, there were multiple incidents of self-harm, 45 detainees engaged in a serious and debilitating hunger strike and dozens suffered from depression or experienced psychotic episodes.

So clearly there were lasting mental health effects that will stay with those people forever. Yet they have no other option. Conditions in transit countries are not safe, and because Australia takes so few people per year from Indonesia and Malaysia it can take years and years for them to be processed and resettled. People live in those processing facilities in limbo. They cannot work, they cannot go to school and they have no entitlement to health care. They are in absolute limbo and sometimes with no prospect of being resettled for 20 years. Of course they get on a leaky boat to try and speed that up. Who could face the mental anguish of that uncertainty and that stultifying, oppressive situation of no work, no home, no school and no hope. So of course they risk their very lives for a chance at certainty, freedom and a new life.

The way we get them not to take that chance on a leaky, dangerous boat journey is to give them another option; it is to give them some hope that they will be processed and resettled more quickly. They do not have to risk their lives on a boat because they do not have to face years and years of debilitating, demoralising, soul destroying limbo. It is to give them a safer pathway.

Australia can afford to lift its refugee intake. We take 1.3 per cent of the world's refugees. It is a miniscule amount. We can do better. The Greens propose increasing our humanitarian intake to 25,000, including 5,000 immediately from Malaysia and Indonesia to ease that inhumane backlog. We need to better resource and have more UNHCR assessment processors so that there are not just two officers as there are in Indonesia assessing asylum applications. We need to resettle more people directly, work with our regional neighbors to care for asylum seekers better and ensure they have legal safeguards protecting their human rights in Malaysia and Indonesia so that people are safe while they wait. This approach has worked in the past, under the Fraser government. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Fraser earlier this morning and congratulating him on having a heart and some courage.

The Greens welcome those aspects of the Houston report that endorse our approach to increase our intake and better resource UNHCR processing facilities. But why have we seen no movement to implement those aspects? It does not need legislation. Why this unseemly rush, instead, to legislate the Pacific solution before even adopting those other more humane aspects to the response? Now we have indefinite, mandatory detention. The Greens amendment to limit detention in Nauru, Manus Island and Malaysia, if it ever gets up, to 12 months was voted down by both big parties in the House. They have another opportunity to change their minds on that today.

The Greens position is backed by the experts. Amnesty, the Refugee Council and former PM Malcolm Fraser have all written to the PM expressing their concerns about this bill. I want to read into the public record those concerns:

Dear Prime Minister

We are united in our opposition to the Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill currently before Parliament. We are also concerned that other legislative changes required to implement the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers will, if passed, see the Australian Parliament remove legislative safeguards for asylum seekers, reverse previous measures implemented to protect vulnerable people and breach Australia’s international obligations. We oppose any form of offshore processing and policies centred on deterrence and punishing people based on their mode of arrival.

They go on:

We are particularly concerned that implementation of the Expert Panel’s recommendations will:

Repeal the few human rights protections included in the offshore processing legislation passed in 2001.

See any country designated for offshore processing, regardless of whether it is a party to the Refugee Convention.

Punish asylum seekers who arrive by boat in breach of the Refugee Convention.

Implement a return to assessing asylum applications in Nauru and Manus Island, ignoring past lessons regarding the mental health impacts of holding people indefinitely with limited freedom of movement.

Facilitate the removal of child asylum seekers from Australia.

Facilitate the transfer of unaccompanied minors who will have no guardian to act in their best interests, in breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Prevent IMAs (whatever their age) from proposing family members for the Special Humanitarian Program (SHP), creating greater incentive for families who want to stay together to travel by boat to Australia.

Leave open the possibility that boats may be turned back in the future, contravening the Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.

The Greens share those concerns. I have already outlined what we believe is a much more humane and effective solution.

I now want to take the opportunity to put on record some of the perspectives of an organisation from my home state of Queensland that does some really wonderful and inspirational work with refugees. I want to share their perspectives in this debate as, so far, sadly, there has been far too much demonisation of people who simply want our help. The debate seems to have completely missed this key point—the richness and wealth that comes with being a caring, compassionate society that acts in accordance with international law and that accepts people who come to us when fleeing persecution. I think a greater acknowledgment of this by both sides of politics throughout this ugly debate may have helped us come to a more compassionate outcome than the abomination that is currently before us.

The Multicultural Development Association, MDA, is Queensland's largest settlement agency for migrants and refugees. It was established in May 1998 and it does truly fabulous work in promoting multiculturalism and empowering people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. MDA settles approximately 1,100 newly arrived refugees annually and it currently works with 3,500 migrants and refugees. Most of MDA's clients are from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

In their 2011 submission to the Inquiry into Multiculturalism in Australia, MDA shared some great insights into the valuable contributions that migrants and refugees have made in their new communities. I want to share some of these. MDA states:

In MDA's experience many refugees and migrants are motivated to integrate into the Australian community, to adopt and share Australian values and beliefs and are eager to work hard to contribute to and 'give back' to their new country. Many of the clients and communities MDA works with also dedicate considerable time to volunteer activities within their community while maintaining jobs and undertaking study in order to create better lives for their families. Indeed, it is estimated that nearly 30% of people in Australia who were born overseas participate in formal volunteering—the number of informal volunteers is unable to be measured.

…   …   …

During the 2011 Queensland Floods the strength of Australia’s multiculturalism was demonstrated when, during the flood clean up MDA was inundated with offers from Brisbane refugee communities who were eager to help with the clean up, despite feeling traumatised by the flood event. Over a period of four days, MDA had approximately 120 volunteers from nine refugee communities contribute approximately 780 hours to the clean up process. Refugee communities assisted with all tasks from sweeping out muddy houses to carrying furniture and providing food in their local communities. One local community even held a BBQ sausage sizzle in a nearby park and provided much needed food and drink to over 200 weary local volunteers. For some refugees, being able to help others in the community was a practical way for them to show their support for their local community.

I continue the quote:

MDA received significant positive feedback from members of the community about the efforts of refugee communities. One elderly couple whose business premises was severely impacted by the floods told MDA workers that having scores of refugees helping them clean their premises and being able to talk to them about their experiences had completely changed their perspective and opinions about refugees.

The MDA shared one particular story that I think really demonstrates how much richer our communities are for being welcoming and doing the right, caring thing by people who seek asylum on our shores. I quote:

On Wednesday 19 January 2011, the streets surrounding Milpera State High School's flooded campus at Chelmer, Brisbane were inundated with construction workers, residents and a significant army presence to control the traffic and surrounding areas. Over 20 Rohingyan men (from Burma) arrived to volunteer in the clean-up efforts to prepare the site for the massive construction to take place the following week. Many of the men and youth were at different stages of resettlement and each carried with them different stories from their refugee experience, all touched in some way by the heavy military presence from their time in Burma and in refugee camps in Bangladesh. While there was some trepidation about coming into contact with military personnel, it soon dissipated when our community members were greeted with warm smiles and friendly handshakes from the men and women in uniform. The community worked hard all day, barely stopping for breaks, reporting to their community development worker that they would stay all day if they were needed as they were working by choice as opposed to the forced slave labour they endured back in their home country.

The MDA also brought to the fore the significant economic contribution that our migrant and refugee communities provide to Australia by citing statements by former Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner Tom Calma, who said:

… economically, multiculturalism has also brought significant benefits through creating global economic links and relationships; developing export markets; enhancing creativity and innovation through access to a range of cultural perspectives and diverse skills; introducing new goods and services; and increasing economic growth. Other considerable economic contributions by refugees and migrants are outward remittances to support families and communities in developing countries, which amounted to over US$2.815 billion in 2006 alone, and the establishment of businesses and entrepreneurial initiatives in Australia.

I thank the Multicultural Development Association for helping refugees new to Australia, and to my state of Queensland, feel welcome and at home. Clearly their work is invaluable.

In conclusion, the Greens will not be supporting this bill. In this place we have each searched our conscience. Those of us who are parents are particularly moved by the plight of refugee children. But we simply cannot support a bill that will not work. It will not save people's lives; it will relegate them to horror houses, years in limbo and a lifetime of mental anguish. The thought of children growing up in detention is abhorrent to me, as it should be to everyone in this place. Put yourself in the shoes of those desperate refugees and ask yourself whether you would flee for a better life for you and your family. Of course you would. So let's give these people a safer option, save their lives and show them that we have enough decency, humanity, grace and generosity to welcome them to this most lucky country. And let's show Australians that their representatives have hearts and the courage to make decisions that in years coming we can be proud of.