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Tuesday, 22 June 1999
Page: 7103

Dr THEOPHANOUS (8:50 PM) —The situation, with respect to what is happening to immigration policy at the moment, is that the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs continues to be dictated to by his department, and his department is very adept at misleading not only the minister but also the general Australian population. I raised two questions on notice with the minister concerning visitors visas and the discriminatory way in which the whole visitors visa program is operating. I also raised the issue before the Joint Standing Committee on Migration in its inquiry on the Olympic Games. In his second reply, the minister provided me with information, and on the basis of that information I was able to write to the minister and insist that, in fact, the department had misled not only the minister but also the Australian public in relation to the definition of non-returnees.

Four categories were used for the definition of non-returnees, and of those four categories only two could be considered—by anyone—as legitimate categories in defining non-returnees. In fact, on the basis of these false figures, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs has gone about implementing a discriminatory policy against certain countries in relation to visitors visas.

The policy is discriminatory in two ways. The first way is that it is institutionally discriminatory. In some countries, all you have to do to get a visa to visit Australia is go to your travel agent—who works with the so-called ETA system—and give them your name, address and passport number. They punch in a couple of details, and, within a couple of minutes, they get your approval for a visa.

On the other hand, in some countries—and in my letter to the minister I referred specifically to China, Lebanon, Turkey and Vietnam—it has become the practice to subject people to very serious interrogations which sometimes last more than one hour. People are asked to provide documentation, including proof of their assets, employment and all the rest of it. This is not for permanent immigration; this is for a visitors visa to Australia for four to six weeks.

In many cases, the people rejected are not simply people who are visiting friends or wanting to visit our country for tourism purposes, but they actually have relatives in Australia. Often they want to come for a legitimate reason—like a wedding, a baptism or some other event—and they are not allowed to come. The rejection of these sorts of people, especially at a time when the immigration program has been cut back in family reunion, is a disgrace. I say this to the minister: if a person's brother or sister cannot come to Australia under the normal immigration program because they have no hope, but they want to see their brother or sister once every five or 10 years, what happens? They are rejected, and they are continually rejected on the basis of a system which was put into place based on the level of risk and on the level of non-returnees.

On the figures provided to me by the minister in reply to a question on a previous occasion, if you take out the legitimate categories, the situation is that the real non-return rates are much lower than was claimed by the department. The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs are getting up to their old tricks of trying to deceive ministers in relation to policy by creating false `facts' and trying to use those false `facts' to base policy on. This is not the first time that this has happened. (Extension of time granted)

Let me talk about the figures in these categories. There were four categories and, of the four categories, only two can be considered as legitimate categories. One is the category of people who overstay their visa; their visa expires and they stay in Australia. Everyone admits that category of people has misused the system. Then there is the category of people who overstay their visa and at a given moment return. We admit that one as well, even though they do return. Those are the two categories of whom I—and, I think, every Australian—would think, `They are clearly people who have in fact overstayed their visa or who have not met the conditions of the visa.'

What has happened is that the department has included two other categories in the definition of non-returnees. One is the category of people who go to the department of immigration after their first visa is about to expire, get an extension and then leave legitimately before the second visa expires. These people have done everything in accordance with the law. Why are these people called non-returnees? Why are these people included in this factor? I wrote to the minister a long time ago on 29 April. It is very interesting that at 5.30 p.m. today I got a letter from the minister in reply. It has taken him all this time and he has admitted himself that he had to go through four different drafts of the letter trying to justify the situation.

I have had a look at the letter very quickly and, Minister, you can state whatever you like in this letter but what you ought to be doing is getting your departmental officials in and saying, `Why have you misled me in relation to this matter?' instead of trying to justify what they are doing. As I mentioned, they include the category of people who come to Australia and get a second visa legitimately from the department. But that is not all. The other category is of people who come to Australia, apply to the department for permanent stay and are actually accepted. Can you believe that? People who are actually accepted legitimately by the department of immigration are then defined under this proposal as non-returnees and as risk factors. The department itself has approved them. This is an absurdity.

Let us take these figures in a different way. For example, from China, according to the DIMA figures, 14.59 per cent are non-returnees. If you admit only the legitimate category, it is 3.24 per cent. If you take the Lebanon it is 25.5 per cent according to DIMA, but if you take only the legitimate categories it is 3.65 per cent. For Turkey, if you go by DIMA it is 17.3 per cent but if you take only the legitimate categories it is 2.87 per cent. For Vietnam, it is 19.5 per cent according to DIMA, but if you take only the legitimate category it is 3.32 per cent. Why is this an issue? Because on the basis of the false figures from the department we have an exercise of a policy which has meant the following. From Lebanon 46.5 per cent—nearly one in two applicants for a visitors visa—are rejected. This is an outrage. Are we saying that nearly one out of two Lebanese people applying are non-genuine applicants? Is this what the minister is claiming? In this letter he is trying to justify this kind of practice.

From China, there were 25.5 per cent rejected for visitors visas. The government goes and signs a contract to try to increase the number of visitors from China to one million people. The tourism commission and all the other tourism bodies have criticised the minister and supported the sort of argument I presented in parliament and to the minister. The tourism commission supports what I am trying to say. We signed this agreement with China and yet we reject 25 per cent. On the basis of these intense interrogations of people, we reject the applicants for visitors visas. This matter needs an inquiry and you have rejected an inquiry. I call on you again to reconsider. (Time expired)