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Tuesday, 24 May 1977
Page: 1713

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Mr MacKELLAR (Warringah) (Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs) - by leave- Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on refugee» «policy» and new arrangements to enable «refugee» and analogous situations to be dealt with promptly, equitably and effectively. Many of our citizens were once refugees or displaced persons. They have found security and prosperity here and have made a valuable contribution to our country. When we welcomed them, it was hoped that refugees and disabled persons were a temporary post-war phenomenon. Now we have to recognise that this was not so. There still are many people in many parts of the world who can be called refugees. Unfortunately, crises which lead to the endangering and displacement of human beings have become commonplace and it is only the more catastrophic or immediate of such situations which now make the headlines. Despite the best efforts of people of good will and of the international community, we must expect that there will continue to be refugees. Apart from all other considerations, we cannot control the forces of nature. In the past year we have seen the force of natural disasters and their effects for people with associations with Australia.

As a matter of humanity, and in accord with international obligations freely entered into, Australia has accepted a responsibility to contribute toward the solution of world «refugee» problems. To this end: It has ratified the Convention on the Status of Refugees; it is a member of the Executive Committee of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and contributes to the resettlement funds of the UNHCR; it recognises the need through its immigration «policy» to fulfil the legal obligations required by the Convention and to develop special humanitarian programs for the resettlement of the displaced and/or the persecuted. These steps, taken as an involved member of the international community, must now be complemented by the adoption and application of an ongoing «refugee» «policy» and «refugee» mechanism. We do injustice to previous governments if we do not give tribute to Australia's contribution in resettlement of refugees in the past. We have done this partly to develop our country, partly to respond to situations demanding a humanitarian response. We have done this without an articulated «policy» . Such a «policy» is needed.

If we are to seek to act in the interests of refugees themselves and the Australian community, it is necessary to face up to many practical difficulties. Many refugees are not simply migrants beset by a few additional problems. They are often persons who are distressed and disoriented and who need specialised settlement assistance. Uprooted from their familiar surroundings, they may face the shock of cultural dissimilarities, a language barrier and perhaps the trauma of the discovery that their skills or the occupation they followed in their country of origin are not recognised or have no parallel in their country of refuge.

Those who have in the recent past exhorted the Government to accept greater numbers of refugees must take into account the need to coordinate and develop such Government and community resources as will assist not only in the acceptance, but also in the responsible settlement, of refugees. A fact often forgotten is that many refugees do not want to come to Australia or, at least, they prefer to go to another country where, for instance, they have close relatives or their language is spoken. Moreover, our own capacity to accept refugees is not unlimited. Australia's present and future capacity to resettle refugees successfully depends on many factors including: The prevailing economic situation; the level of unemployment; the locations within

Australia to which refugees wish to go; the background of refugees to be accepted- their capacity for early integration or otherwise; the availability of special post arrival services- language instruction, education, training, accommodation, health and welfare; and the numbers of refugees for which voluntary agencies can care.

The Government's approach to refugees is based on the following four principles:

1.   Australia fully recognises its humanitarian commitment and responsibility to admit refugees for resettlement.

2.   The decision to accept refugees- must always remain with the Government of Australia.

3.   Special assistance will often need to be provided for the movement of refugees in designated situations or for their resettlement in Australia.

4.   It may not be in the interest of some refugees to settle in Australia. Their interests may be better served by resettlement elsewhere. The Australian Government makes an annual contribution to the UNHCR which is the main body associated with such resettlement.

It is the Government's view that the acceptance and settlement of refugees should be a continuum beginning with a quick and decisive response to international crises and concluding, after what may be a long and difficult path for the «refugee» , with successful integration into the Australian community. We have to recognise, however, that there can be refugees with the sort of background, education and skills enabling them to fit readily into the Australian scene. It may be a disservice to them to continue to single them out for special treatment as refugees after they have arrived in Australia. There are others who may not wish to be labelled as 'refugees' over a period.

In situations where refugees are under immediate and dire personal threat, acceptance of people who will face settlement difficulties in Australia is justified. More generally, we have to keep in mind that it may not be in the interests of refugees not under immediate personal threat to accept them for entry to Australia if they will face major long term settlement problems here. It may be preferable for them to be resettled in another country or to be sustained in a more suitable environment, through the UNHCR. This is the responsible approach based on the long view which takes account not only of the problem but also of the best solution.

Within the range of people who are forced by events to become refugees there will be many variations of circumstances and conditions. Needs will differ. The Government recognises that:

1.   There will be people in «refugee» -type situations who do not fall strictly within the UNHCR mandate or within Convention definitions. Government «policy» will be sufficiently flexible to enable the extension of this «policy» , where appropriate, to such people. I shall return to this.

2.   Some refugees will be capable of meeting normal migrant criteria concerning family reunion or occupational skills. Where appropriate, such refugees should be selected and resettled in the normal manner under current migrant policies. In accordance with the practice adopted by some other countries, priority in processing will be given to them.

3.   Other refugees will not fall within the normally acceptable degrees of family relationship or have skills within currently acceptable criteria. Many may have great social adjustments to make in Australia. In offering resettlement to its fair share of these, Australia should first seek those who have relatives in Australia or associations with Australia and those who will be able to make the necessary social adjustments.

4.   The interests of those refugees who, it is assessed, would have extreme difficulty in adjusting to the Australian environment may not be best served by migration to Australia but be better served by action by the UNHCR or other agencies to resettle them in a more compatible environment. I would stress that the Government readily accepts that there will be people in urgent need of resettlement who will have major problems of resettlement in Australia. It would be inconsistent with the humanitarian nature of «refugee» resettlement not to accept some people in this category.

5.   There will also be refugees, some of working age, who will be unable to qualify for selection under these «refugee» guidelines because of physical, mental or social handicaps. Provided that appropriate institutional care is available, Australia will be prepared in principle to accept refugees in this category. No specific quota will be set but each case will be considered in the light of Australia's capacity to provide adequate care.

6.   Through its ratification of the Convention on the Status of Refugees, Australia has accepted certain obligations in relation to people covered by the Convention. Situations arise from time to time in which people such as those who enter Australia illegally - for example, deserting seamen- or who become prohibited immigrants- for example, by the expiry of temporary permits- claim to be refugees entitled to the protection of the Convention and in consequence request permission to remain permanently in Australia. A standing inter-departmental body will be established to evaluate such claims and to make recommendations on them to me. It is proposed that the Office of the UNHCR will be involved as necessary in these deliberations.

To enable Australia to respond quickly to designated «refugee» situations the Government has decided that new mechanisms will be introduced. These are as follows:

1.   The Government will consider proposals from the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs for designating «refugee» situations and appropriate responses to them. The designated «refugee» situations will be kept under regular review. Where it is decided that the Australian response to a «refugee» situation should be in the form of contributions to the UNHCR or other agencies to resettle or temporarily maintain refugees outside Australia, the Minister for Foreign Affairs will continue to determine the modalities and amount of assistance.

2.   A standing inter-departmental committee on refugees comprising a senior officer of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs as chairman, and senior officers of the Departments of Foreign Affairs, Prime Minister and Cabinet, Employment and Industrial Relations, Social Security, Finance, Health and Education with other departments and the Public Service Board to be co-opted as necessary, will be established.

This Committee will advise the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs on the capacity for accepting refugees; consult annually, and otherwise as necessary, with voluntary agencies regarding the numbers they would accept for resettlement; recommend co-ordination for arrival and immediate resettlement; and regularly review the intake of refugees against the capacity of resources in this country to ensure successful resettlement.

3.   Voluntary agencies are to be encouraged to participate and indicate periodically, or as the need arises, the extent of assistance they can provide. Early consideration will be given to those refugees who are the subject of adequate sponsorship by appropriate voluntary bodies. In this respect there is a continuing flow of refugees in small groups or as individuals brought to attention by the UNHCR and /or by voluntary agencies in Australia. Provided satisfactory sponsorship is available, a small number of such refugees could be accepted on a case by case basis by the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. Some agencies expect they may be able to maintain refugees approved for entry to Australia for 12 months after arrival here. This will be explored.

4.   It is proposed to resume the practice of posting an Australian officer to a position in the UNHCR in Geneva and to seek to re-establish formal relations with the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration through observer status.

5.   The «Refugee» Unit of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs will be strengthened. This will enable prompt and efficient responses by experienced officers to «refugee» situations in which it is decided that Australia should participate. We now have considerable experience with the task force approach. The capacity to respond to «refugee» situations in this and other ways will be developed.

6.   The first step taken under this new «policy» will be to locate staff in Thailand temporarily to make a continuing contribution to the resolution of «refugee» problems there. There will be a regular intake of Indo-Chinese refugees from Thailand and nearby areas at a level consistent with our capacity as a community to resettle them. In this operation we shall be relying greatly on the co-operation of the UNHCR, other Governments, especially the Thai Government, and voluntary agencies in Australia.

It is clear from the foregoing that the object of the Government's initiative is a declaration of a comprehensive «refugee» «policy» and the establishment of administrative machinery needed to put it into effect. It will enable us to respond to the needs of those who are displaced, without the constraint of technical definition. The comprehensive nature of this overall approach should not be seen as limiting Australia 's options in particular situations. A «refugee» «policy» must be capable of coping with crises which arise suddenly and often unexpectedly. It must be cognisant of the fact that in such situations human beings have human needs which are intensified by conditions of danger and distress.

Over the past 30 years, Australia has developed an international reputation for resettlement. It reacted to the plight of displaced persons in Europe immediately after World War II and to the consequences of various events in Eastern Europe, of which the most notable were the Soviet repression of movements towards national independence in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Australia has played, and is continuing to play, a responsible part in the resettlement of distressed persons and refugees from the Lebanon and Indo-China. I believe that there would be few in this House who would not support a commitment for Australia to play the most effective role possible in «refugee» settlement. The Government is committed to this view. It is in the belief that there is a community willingness to assist the dispossessed and displaced from overseas in a sensible and realistic way to seek sanctuary and a new life in Australia, that I commend this statement to the Parliament and the people of Australia. I present the following paper:

«Refugee» «Policy» - «Ministerial Statement, 24 May 1 977.

Motion (by Mr Macphee) proposed:

That the House take note of the paper.

Suggest corrections