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Tuesday, 19 June 2001
Page: 27863

Mr HAASE (2:43 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and Minister for Reconciliation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. Can the minister inform the House whether the government has considered alternatives to the policy of mandatory detention of unauthorised arrivals? What steps have been taken recently to improve facilities within immigration reception and processing centres?

Mr RUDDOCK (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and Minister for Reconciliation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) —I thank the honourable member for Kalgoorlie for the question. The honourable member for Kalgoorlie, of course, represents a part of Australia where the impact of irregular arrivals is significant, and he is very much aware that in the past three years we have seen something in the order of 9,000 people arrive in Australia clandestinely. He is very much aware that, amongst that population, you have a variety of people in a variety of circumstances, some of whom will make asylum claims and may be found to be refugees, and a number of whom will be found to have no such entitlement, to be seeking immigration outcomes and to have come to Australia in the expectation that they might be able to obtain such an outcome. Most of these people have engaged organised criminals to facilitate their travel, have been free enough to travel and have the money to engage people for that task—people who are very quick to follow what is happening in Australia. They are aware of processing times and of the procedures that are followed and they inform people of the nature of claims that they should make when they come to Australia. The tapes that are used and are given back in good faith to detainees about the immigration interviews that take place are being hawked around parts of Asia, to brief people on what they might expect when they come to Australia.

The fact is that people do have expectations that, if they come unlawfully, they will be able in many cases to achieve migration outcomes. It is one of the reasons, as I said earlier, that some people try to put us under duress to get outcomes that they are not entitled to. The system of mandatory detention in Australia was introduced by the former Labor government in 1992 and implemented in 1994, at a time when there was an alternative model in place, and that model envisaged that you would be able to process people's applications in particular time frames. To process people's applications in particular time frames requires their cooperation. If you put down a time frame and expect that people's applications have to be processed in that time and that you will not—let me repeat, will not—be able to stop the release of people when that time has expired, those people will sit out the time and wait until it elapses. The former government was being sued by people who were found to have been detained in excess of the time frame that was outlined in the legislation, and was being sued for false imprisonment, with damages against the Australian public.

The alternative model of fixing times was implemented and failed, and the former government changed it because it found that it would not work. It was well aware of the fact that people might not cooperate in relation to their processing and so it said that the clock would stop at the time when people failed to cooperate. But even that did not stop the manipulation of the system. The fact is that, if you were to put time limits on the consideration of applications, it would have an impact, and this impact would be that people would come in the expectation that they could achieve migration outcomes and that they would merely have to sit it out.

I am very conscious of the time that it takes to deal with people in detention. We process most applications, 80 per cent in fact, within 15 weeks. They get an answer within that time. But the reason that some people are held for far longer periods of time is that there is a range of other opportunities available to them to test whether decisions are lawful. Those matters are outside my hands and outside the hands of any government, because they rest with the courts. People are very often in detention for long periods of time because the system is such that, if people want to use it, they can exploit it.

It is important to recognise that I have looked at alternative models and at other suggestions that have been made. I have found that every time an alternative is put up it involves release of people who have no lawful entitlement to release. That is what it involves. I have not heard any suggestion for handling these matters other than that you put people on planes and send them back and have no regard to asylum claims. I have said in relation to women and children, for instance, that I am prepared to look at an alternative detention model, and that is being developed right now for implementation, and we will see whether or not such a system might work. The reason we have mandatory detention is to ensure that people are available for processing and available for removal from Australia if they have no lawful basis to be in the country.

The one country that I am aware of where this issue is quite frequently highlighted is Sweden. Look at what happens there, to assess what would happen in Australia if you were going to adopt an alternative model; that is, simply releasing people when they arrive. They have no idea about the people's health profile, they have no idea whether they pose a risk to security and they have no idea whether people are those who have committed human rights abuses. They need and have in place a system of universal identification so that they can know where people are. In other words, those who argue that you should release people have to be prepared to look at some form of universal identifier to know where people are, because there is no guarantee they are going to turn up later for processing or for removal. If you look at the numbers of people in Sweden, for instance, who are making claims, with about half our population they have significantly higher numbers of onshore claims than we have. The total cost to Sweden is over $1 billion.

So alternative models do produce very different outcomes. They produce larger numbers of people coming in the expectation of migration decisions favourable to them or of being able to remain in the country regardless of whether they have a legal basis to be here. It would increase the cost very significantly. It would undermine the integrity of your migration program but, more importantly—and let me conclude on this basis— the impact is that such an approach undermines your capacity to help those people who have far greater need. I am going to continue to press the argument that, if you have a moral view of these matters, you would be concerned about those people who are languishing in refugee camps with no prospect of going home: unsafe where they are, in need of an urgent resettlement outcome, and in some of the most deplorable circumstances in the world—and I compare those circumstances with the circumstances of those who are able to travel freely and have the money to engage people smugglers. I have to tell you that, if you are looking for refugees in need, I know where you will find them—and you do not find them coming to Australia unlawfully by boat.