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Thursday, 16 August 2012
Page: 5548

Senator MARSHALL (Victoria) (13:31): The modern history of the migration debate in Australia began when 438 Afghani asylum seekers were rescued from a 20-metre wooden fishing boat in international waters by the MV Tampain August 2001. The events following that rescue, the reluctant involvement of Australian Special Forces personnel and the cynical political exercise now known as the 'children overboard affair' are well known to us here, so I will not dwell on them. However, it is necessary to acknowledge these events in order to make sense of where we find ourselves today.

I had hoped that by now, over a decade later, the migration debate would have recovered from its malignant origin. Sadly, the events of the last year, and of the last few weeks in particular, have proven otherwise. As the chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Christmas Island Tragedy, I have a better understanding than many of the challenges faced by asylum seekers and the risks that they take in their attempts to flee persecution. The tragedy of SIEV221 demonstrated the inherent dangers of the people-smuggling business in a horrific way and at great human cost. But we cannot forget what motivates asylum seekers to face these risks. They are fleeing racial persecution, religious persecution, political persecution, torture and oppression. The decision to board a leaky boat bound for Australia is not a decision that anyone takes lightly.

I cannot honestly say that the legislation we consider today, the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012, sits comfortably in the narrative of the Labor Party—a party based on social justice, compassion and the fair go—and it does not sit well with me. I know that many members of the party and of the Australian public more broadly share the sense of disappointment and frustration that I feel today. But, equally, I am not so naive that I can support the continuation of the shameful political deadlock that currently exists—a legislative environment in which we might expect the tragic events of the 2010 Christmas Island tragedy to recur.

That is why I welcome the findings of the report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers; not because I agree with all of their recommendations—because I do not—but because I believe that it at least offers us a way forward. I welcome the report’s proposal to increase Australia’s humanitarian intake to 27,000 people and to build capacity through a cooperative, regional approach. As a party we have long maintained that a regional approach is necessary. This is the real answer and the one that will stand the test of time. I am encouraged by the words of Amnesty International’s Graham Thom, who states:

As long as refugees have little chance of finding safety through official channels many will be forced to seek protection through dangerous unofficial channels. A successful regional approach can only work if refugees and asylum seekers' access to protection is improved, as evenly as possible, across all regional countries.

Amnesty International believes that Australia has a key role to play in developing a regional approach to refugees that in the long term reduces the need for people to flee their homeland, in the medium term reduces the need for refugees to flee countries of first asylum and in the short term provides refugees with more access to official migration routes throughout the region.

He goes on to say:

This approach must never be viewed as a substitute for the long‐established obligation to offer protection to vulnerable people asking for our help.

It is a lack of safe options across the region which forces refugees onto boats to Australia. Improving this situation is absolutely key to stopping people taking dangerous boat journeys.

Australia has no shortage of critics when it comes to our migration policy and no doubt some of this criticism is justified. But we should also acknowledge that the commitment to increase our humanitarian intake will make Australia second only to the United States in refugee resettlement and world leaders on a per capita basis. Australia is and remains a generous country.

I must also put on record my grave concerns about the punitive aspects of the legislation. I understand the need to discourage asylum seekers from undertaking the perilous journey to Australia by boat. And it is clear that the Houston report is well intentioned when it suggests the no-advantage principle as the best means to do this. But, whilst the idiom of 'cruel to be kind' is easy to understand, we cannot allow such simplistic thinking to cloud our judgment on this issue. I am concerned about the effectiveness of the no-advantage principle as a disincentive when asylum seekers are, by their very definition, fleeing serious persecution, often in fear of their lives.

International law requires us to respect the needs of those who seek asylum here, and as a nation we have a responsibility for their protection. I was unsurprised to read in the Age this morning that my concerns are shared by the regional representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Richard Towle. Mr Towle is quoted as stating:

Resettlement is based on individual protection needs, it's not a mathematical formula and it's not based on time spent in a queue … We've got to make sure that if people who are genuine refugees are having to wait for solutions, it's not so long as to cause damage.

I could not agree more. As former member for Fremantle Dr Carmen Lawrence has written:

Not surprisingly, every independent inquiry into immigration detention has drawn attention to the poor mental health of detainees and the particular risks to children's well-being … Such research has revealed high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and panic attacks, attempted suicides and self harm. The longer people are held in detention, the worse the symptoms are likely to be, adding to the already high levels of psychopathology among those who've experienced persecution, harassment, torture and physical assaults.

The very fact that I should feel the need to repeat this is a sign of how low this debate has sunk, but once again I must draw the attention of the chamber to the fact that asylum seekers simply do not have universal access to an orderly migration path or queue. That is a convenient myth, a symptom of the poisonous atmosphere of intolerance and misinformation that continues to pollute this debate. For those refugees who lack access to an orderly migration path, their alternative is to never arrive. This should not be used to justify a policy of arbitrary, indefinite detention, and it is this aspect of the bill that disturbs me the most.

It gives me no satisfaction to support this bill. These last few weeks have been a very difficult time for me and for my Labor Party colleagues. The caucus decision on this matter was not unanimous. Many of us have had great difficulty reconciling this decision with our personal values and I will admit that it conflicts with my own. But, as the party of government, we do not have the luxury of indulging our self-righteousness. And, as the party of government, we are bound to act on this issue, even at our own political cost and against the judgment of some caucus members like myself.

I doubt that there will be a lot of public sympathy for this view. It lacks the immediacy of both the self-serving moral outrage of the Greens Party and the cynical triumphalism of the coalition. But the parliament was called upon to act with maturity in this debate and we had a commitment to make the best of a challenging situation. This legislation is far from perfect and there is still much work to be done and detail to work through. I, along with many of my colleagues, will continue to face the challenge of humanitarian reform of Australia’s migration policy and the challenge of ensuring that we do not lose sight of the fact that asylum seekers are neither a mathematical problem nor pawns in a political game. They are real people, decent people, who arrive on our shores asking only for help and protection for themselves and their families.