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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 48

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (1:16 PM) —I speak today on the ongoing debacle of detention centres in Australia and, indeed, outside Australia—on Nauru. During the break between sitting weeks a couple of weeks ago, I managed to visit the detention centre on Christmas Island—one of the few federal MPs who have visited that centre to meet with the detainees there. Certainly, they are one group of people who have undoubtedly been forgotten, despite some of the significant public debate around the issue of asylum seekers, refugees and detention. I think the situation facing the group on Christmas Island has not got very much public attention, and of course that is the reason the government, at great public cost, took those people to Christmas Island.

It is a fact that the detainees on Christmas Island did get to the migration zone. Their boat sailed through to just off the coast of Port Hedland, so there was absolutely no legal need to take them to Christmas Island. It did not affect in any way the progress of their refugee claims. It was purely an effort by this government to try to get them out of sight and out of mind, and I think that has worked at great public expense. It was absurd to take people from literally next door to a detention centre at Port Hedland, which was still operational at the time, and put them on a Navy vessel and ship them all the way out to Christmas Island, which is a very long distance. It cost an enormous amount of money to use the Navy as a glorified water taxi. It is simply a ridiculous way to use the Navy, but they are the lengths the government will go to to keep people out of sight. It was a valuable experience for me—and, I would suggest, a valuable experience for the detainees—for me to be able to visit them and to talk with them, because they have very few visitors from the mainland and certainly very few visitors from the federal parliament. There has been only one as far as I am aware.

It is also relevant to talk about that in the context of detention overall. Earlier this week, the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs announced that, I think, 27 Iraqis on Nauru have now been assessed as being refugees and will be able to get visas in Australia. That is great. It is a pity it has taken three years for those people to be assessed to be refugees and to now get a temporary protection visa. It is a pity they have had to be locked up on Nauru, sometimes via a period of time on Manus Island—and, indeed, some of them were on Christmas Island before that—for three years before they could get those visas. It is an absurd situation at massive public cost. Having also visited Nauru twice—as I have done—and met with people there, including these Iraqi people, I can categorically report to the Senate that the mental health damage done to these people is enormous, and the damage will stay with them for a long period of time.

We have also seen just recently hunger strikes in the Baxter detention centre, near Port Augusta in South Australia. I asked a question of the minister about that last week. She did not seem to know much about it. She could not find her briefing note, which was a bit disappointing because she is the immigration minister and it was not as though she was representing somebody else. I would have thought she would have had more awareness of the detail of that quite serious problem of hunger strikes within an Australian detention centre. That group of Sri Lankans, as I understand it, ceased their hunger strike after receiving certain communications, but I have just heard reports, which I am seeking to further confirm, that there are now other people going on hunger strikes in Baxter. Three Iranians in the detention centre have started a hunger strike and there is at least one man who has been on the Baxter detention centre roof for a couple of days. A statement has been issued by all 70 of the people of Iranian background still in Baxter. Many of these people have been in detention in Australia for three or four years and some have been in detention for over five years.

When you put people in a situation where they have no hope and live in fear over months and months, it is inevitable that you will get not only severe psychological damage but also acts of desperation such as hunger strikes. It is a ridiculous situation that we have this incredibly expensive, elaborate detention regime stretching from thousands of kilometres offshore on the Pacific island of Nauru to thousands of kilometres offshore to Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean as well as to the centre of Australia and yet we still have people languishing there year after year and we still have these disturbances and these acts of extreme distress such as hunger strikes. It is a ridiculous situation that shows the unsustainability of the government's mandatory detention model and the extreme folly of Labor continuing to partially attach themselves to it.

I will talk a little bit more specifically about the Christmas Island visit because so few people have managed to get there and meet with the asylum seekers. There are currently 43 Vietnamese asylum seekers there. They fled Vietnam and ended up in Australia, as people may recall, in about the middle of last year. This group of people are all related in terms of broader extended families and in terms of the activity that they were all engaged in. They claim to have been distributing pamphlets, speaking out against the Vietnamese government and calling for political freedom and better treatment for the people.

They arrived in the boat the Hao Kiet off the coast of Port Hedland on 1 July last year after a month at sea and were then taken across to Christmas Island, arriving on 5 July. As a total coincidence I was actually there at the time, in my capacity as a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, which was conducting a visit to look at the preparations for the revamping of the detention centre there—preparations that were being very hurriedly sped up to allow for the arrival of these people. Again, it was at enormous cost. I think people can appreciate how expensive it is to ship in materials to Christmas Island, to ship in staff to undertake construction and all of the infrastructure. It was very expensive to get everything to Christmas Island and it was a great waste of money when the facilities were already set up and staff were already present in places like Port Hedland.

As I said, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration was on the island. The government waited until the committee had left the island on the government plane and then it shipped in the Vietnamese asylum seekers literally on the same day, within a few hours of our departure. We were not able to meet with them at all. We saw the centre literally the day before the Vietnamese moved in. So it was good to go back there nearly 18 months later to see the place after it had been lived in for so long. The situation does have some advantages over the situation in other detention centres I have been to in that the group is all of one nationality and all broadly known to one another beforehand. So you do not get some of the problems of people from mixed ethnic backgrounds and nationalities being pushed in together. Having said that, I do not suggest that there are still not some issues there in terms of that group of people. They all live in one compound, all 43 of them, in very small rooms—about two widths of a single bed for the room—one beside the other, in a big elongated demountable.

One very obvious transition I noticed in being shown around the place was the vegetable garden that they have managed to create in the space of 18 months from when we were there. I have a photo taken at the time when the area was just bare dirt. Now there are all sorts of vegetables grown there. Indeed it is the best vegie garden on Christmas Island, as I understand it. They have been able to develop the natural market gardening tendency, I think, of rural Vietnamese people and they have produced an enormous amount of vegetables. Each group that I was visiting brought gifts of lettuces and other vegetables that they had grown in the camp. I hasten to add that I did not bring them back to Australia, because of the importance of maintaining quarantine. Nonetheless, they did not go to waste. It was wonderful to see all of that having been grown in that space of time—pawpaw trees and other things as well. There were also beds that they had planted, grown and pruned in such a way as to have the name of the boat, the Hao Kiet, the name of Christmas Island and the date of their arrival in the camp as a permanent reminder of where they had come from and the date on which they had arrived.

Out of the group that arrived, nine of those people have already received protection visas from Australia, having been assessed as in need of genuine protection. Those two families are living in Perth and Melbourne. It highlights an anomaly and is part of the reason for the additional distress that the detainees still on Christmas Island are feeling, because some of them have been accepted and others have not, despite having been involved in the same activity and despite the fact that many of them are linked in a family sense. As I understand it, the rest of the family of one of the young women there had been granted a visa but she had not, for reasons that she could not understand. And from reading her decision, I was certainly not able to understand it either. She is 22.

Amongst the group currently in detention there are nine children. Whenever the minister talks about children not being in detention in Australia anymore we have the little asterisk saying that it `does not count Christmas Island'. People on Christmas Island get annoyed when they are not counted as part of Australia and they feel forgotten generally. We had the opportunity to meet with a number of residents of Christmas Island as well and I would certainly like to thank all of the people I met with for all sorts of reasons. They were all extremely friendly and welcoming. Unless you are an asylum seeker and are going to get locked up, I would recommend going to Christmas Island. It is a fascinating place with an amazing environment and a very interesting and unique culture and history. Unfortunately for the asylum seekers they do not see much of that because they are locked up in their detention centre. They do get out on escorted trips but their freedom is being denied them and they are in conditions that could hardly be called luxurious or even anything more than basic. But conditions are not the real problem, of course. It is the lack of freedom that is the real problem.

As someone who has visited detention centres all around Australia as well as Nauru, I did find some of the restrictions that were placed on me in meeting with the detainees fairly unusual. They were frustrating rather than impeding, but annoying nonetheless. Clearly, the interpreter was saying that there were various questions they were not allowed to answer and issues they were told not to talk about. And the time during which I was allowed to meet with each group was much shorter than usual. Given that there was hardly a big long queue of people waiting to come and visit, this was frustrating and there did not seem to be any good reason for that.

There is no doubt that there is still significant oppression and persecution in Vietnam. The US State Department has placed Vietnam on a persecution watch because of the continuing and increasing acts of oppression against political and religious freedom in that country. The Vietnamese communist government has specifically been cited by the US for failing to guarantee individual religious freedom for its citizens. Amnesty International has reported strong and ongoing concerns with the human rights situation in Vietnam. So there is no doubt that there are serious problems and serious human rights breaches in Vietnam.

Obviously, with refugee claims it has to be demonstrated that those breaches apply to each person's individual case to a certain level for a certain reason. That is part of the issue of assessing people's claims. But the fact is that these people have been on Christmas Island now for nearly 18 months, and they look like being there for a long time yet. We were talking about people being in Baxter or Nauru for three, four or five years. We do not want more wasted lives, particularly of the children who are growing up in this environment. I met a nine-month-old baby who was born in a camp and a woman who is pregnant. That situation should not be continued. Just because the government has been re-elected does not mean this issue has gone away. It has not and the Democrats will continue to raise it.

Finally, I would like to thank Kaye Bernard and Dr Mary Crock in particular, who were visiting at the same time as me, for their assistance on the island. They are committed to trying to assist these people and, along with many others in the Australian community, will continue to try to ensure that the individual circumstances of this group of people, along with many others who are the victims of this government's unjust laws—this parliament's unjust laws, I have to say—are not forgotten. (Time expired)