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Thursday, 16 August 2012
Page: 5618

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (16:13): Prior to question time, I had been speaking on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. In closing, I have some comments to add by way of context. We get so rapidly lost in this debate and it has been chased down into a dark corner. Once in a while it is worth pulling back to take a look at what is happening in the world that we are part of. In 2010, the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters by boat was about 6½ thousand. But that very same year, the UNHCR estimates that there were 43.7 million forcibly displaced people in the world. That includes refugees but also internally displaced persons—those in camps or those on the move. I repeat: 43.7 million people are forcibly displaced in the world. So 0.014 per cent of them came to Australia by boat. After visiting Australia this February, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, urged Australians to appreciate the scale of the humanitarian crisis that they are trying to contend with and the very small—not inconsequential but, on a global scale, small—nature of our role in it. Against the setting of 57,000 people reaching Malta and Italy by boat in 2011 and another 100,000 asylum seekers reaching Yemen by boat, Mr Guterres said:

It is very difficult for me as High Commissioner, who has to deal with the whole world, to be convinced that 6000 is a very important problem.

I understand that in the psychology of Australia, the collective psychology, this is an important problem … but you need to understand also the global perspective.

He called for moral leadership and he said the risk of a populist approach by politicians was that vastly exaggerated fears 'all too easily manifest into statements and acts of xenophobia against foreigners—be they refugees, migrants or others'. That sounds familiar, doesn't it?

It is not to say that for these 6,000 people the high commissioner referred we are not primarily responsible, once they start making their way here, to make sure that they are protected, to make sure that they are not risking their lives. And if they have set out on these voyages in unseaworthy vessels with crews who are not always competent to pilot the boats in the first place, it is a primary responsibility to make sure that they are not abandoned, that distress calls are relayed immediately to emergency services, in this case the naval personnel, both here and in international waters and the Indonesian authorities. That is our responsibility. We have put a number of propositions forward. Senators Milne and Hanson-Young have detailed exhaustively what we believe should happen now without recourse to this parliament, without even being involved in how degraded this debate has become, because these things do not require legislative effect to happen now and we can be providing much safer pathways for people who do make these voyages.

While the government jumps on implementing the findings of the Houston report, or the very narrow interpretation of what those findings were, I want to recall that six months ago the inquiry into the immigration detention system made a number of findings that have simply been ignored and set aside. Just in March this year, that inquiry recommended that asylum seekers be detained for no longer than 90 days. And a majority of the joint committee found that asylum seekers who pass initial health, character and security checks should immediately get a bridging visa or be moved into community detention. One of the reasons for those findings is that indefinite detention is damaging to mental health. People are killing themselves in our immigration detention system; they are self-harming; they are sewing their lips together. They have nowhere to go, they have no idea when they are going to be released, and it is making them mentally ill. This is now a very well understood, if we are concerned about saving lives. I will not throw accusations across the chamber that members on this side do not care. Everybody cares. Nobody wants to see people drowning. I think one of the things we should have done a long time to ago was to turn down the temperature in here. Nobody wants people to die, but nor do I think anybody in their right mind wants people to go out of their minds in indefinite detention behind barbed wire, for no crime, for undetermined periods of time—and it could be forever—as a deterrent effect for those left behind. It is not only morally bankrupt, but the logic is not there. It is not going to work.

The question that I will rest my contribution on is: what happens in six or eight months time when we have got people behind cages in Nauru, on Manus and around the region, and the boats keep coming? What is going to happen when the bumper sticker that Mr Abbott has been trading under falls off the bumper? We will then realise that we have been having the wrong debate. We must protect people who try and make these voyages. We must remember why they make them in the first place. Most of all, we have to lose this delusion that locking people up is going to be more of a deterrent than the things that they are fleeing.

This debate will have to be reopened, it will have to be resumed, if this bill does not fix anything. We have stumbled down a very dark rabbit hole on a false premise that border security is somehow related to how we treat desperate people fleeing desperate circumstances. It is not just about upholding international legal obligations, although of course that is very important. But if it is not going to work then why are we doing it? If it is just a headline for today or tomorrow then not only are we selling out and doing an enormous disservice to the people who come here but it is doing damage to how we perceive ourselves as a country. We are better than this. I will be voting against this bill when we put it to the vote later this afternoon.