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Thursday, 23 August 2001
Page: 30100


Ms PLIBERSEK (10:32 AM) — The Migration Legislation Amendment (Immigration Detainees) Bill (No. 2) 2001 is designed to protect detainees and guards. The strip searching provisions are said to be designed to find weapons before they can be used on other detainees or on guards. In debating this legislation, we really need to ask ourselves some very important questions. Of course the safety of any worker at detention facilities is important, as is the safety of people who are detained in such facilities, but the reality is that in most cases the violence which occurs in these centres is actual or threatened self-harm. We need to ask ourselves the following questions: why is self-harm occurring? Why did the suicide occur? Why did the detainees at Woomera sew their lips together? Why has violence occurred? What can we do to make the detention regime more humane?

First of all, we face an enormous problem because detainees are not appropriately separated. Recent arrivals are put into detention with people who have gone completely through the refugee determination process and have been rejected. So a lot of people who are likely to be found to be genuine refugees are put into detention centres side by side with people who have been found not to be genuine refugees, who have been in detention for many years and often have nothing to lose. Asylum seekers who are likely to be found to be genuine refugees are also sharing facilities with people who have committed crimes on Australian soil or overseas and are awaiting deportation. It is very important that, when we talk about the safety of guards and the safety of people in detention centres and when we suggest that guards need extra powers, we keep in mind that the vast majority of people in detention pose no threat to guards or to other detainees but they are being inappropriately kept with people who are perhaps a potential threat.

It is worth noting that genuine refugees do very little to avoid detection. Many of them arrive at Kingsford Smith airport and apply for asylum, or they arrive on Christmas Island or on Ashmore Reef. They certainly do not try to sneak in. Most of them are happy to meet Australian authorities because they want to put in an application for asylum. It is in their interests to make contact with Australian authorities, if they are going to be granted refugee status. They can begin the process of actually becoming legitimate Australian citizens.

Also, it is very important to differentiate between the detainees. One of the very first things we can do to reduce the threat of violence against women and children is to take them out of the camps. I am very pleased that the minister has engaged in this three- to six-month trial to have women and children living in the community. If the minister believes that some detainees are potentially violent and that they are manufacturing weapons and need to be strip searched, what on earth are we doing keeping children in detention with these people? Last year about 900 children passed through detention centres and of those children 30 were detained for more than one year. In fact, at the moment there are 39 unaccompanied minors in detention centres. If the minister believes that some detainees are manufacturing weapons with which they may harm guards or other detainees, it is absolutely unconscionable that these children, in particular unaccompanied minors, should be kept in the same facilities as these potentially violent people, as the minister would have it.

The other step we need to take to ensure that self-harm and violence are minimised is to make sure that detainees are released as soon as possible. After identity, character and health checks, we need to release people as quickly as possible into the community. Australia has, as every other country has, an absolute right to make sure that people who are coming into the country are no threat to the community: that they pose no health risks and that their character is good. But once these things have been established we need to process people as quickly as possible and have them living in the community where they can start to be productive members of the Australian community.

It is worth remembering that between 75 and 90 per cent of asylum seekers are found to be genuine refugees and in some groups it is higher. If you look at Iraqi boat people, 97 per cent are found to be genuine refugees; of Afghani boat people, 92 per cent are found to be genuine refugees. What is the point of having these people locked up in detention centres, costing Australian taxpayers $105 a day and losing their sense of self so that when they are finally released they find it very difficult to fit back into the community? What is the point, when they are going to be found to be genuine refugees, of keeping them locked up for years at a time?

Learning English and finding work are the things that will help these people eventually become good Australian citizens. Certainly, getting an education for their children is the first step to making sure that these families effectively integrate into the Australian community. As I said earlier, 900 children passed through detention centres last year. I am particularly concerned about the provisions for strip searching children as young as 10. In my view, there should not be children in detention centres, and if there were no children in detention centres there would be no need to strip search 10-year-olds.

It is worth noting that people who overstay visas who come as tourists or students or businesspeople and for some reason overstay or make an application onshore for asylum get bridging visas and they are allowed to remain in the community until the matter is determined—whether they are able to stay or not. Certainly, we do not have the minister or anybody else arguing that these people, who are by and large British or American overstayers, are a serious threat to the Australian community.

The actual running of the detention centres in Australia has been a matter that has concerned me for some time. In the discussion over whether we should strip search people and extend the powers to strip search, I think that one of my great concerns has been that Australasian Correctional Management has not run these centres in the way that I think they should be run. The two Ombudsman's reports, the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade report in June this year and the Joint Standing Committee on Migration report last year all raised serious issues about the way detention centres are run. They raised all sorts of issues about the way that staff have dealt with people in the detention centres.

These staff are basically prison guards and they should not be: they should be people who are experienced in dealing with traumatised human beings. Prison guards have been involved in incidences of violence such as the one in Port Hedland where the Port Hedland operations manager pleaded guilty to twice assaulting a teenager, once when the teenager was held by other guards and once when the teenager was handcuffed to his bed. This happened just days before the Port Hedland riot on 21 January, and you have to ask yourself whether perhaps this beating had something to do with the riot.

There is a situation in Villawood at the moment where, on 27 April, 10 detainees allege that they were assaulted by guards when being moved from one section of Villawood to another. There is a videotape of part of the incident; part of that videotape seems not to be there. There is apparently a Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs employee who says that she saw at least two detainees assaulted. You have to ask yourself why those detainees have been so expeditiously deported—many of them have been deported since that incident took place. The guards have been sent to Western Australia, so the police cannot question them. There are some very serious questions being raised in the detention centres. There is another reported case of a Somalian woman beaten unconscious by ACM guards, and the case was taken up by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

When we are talking about the need to search detainees and their being a threat to guards, I think we also have to consider that, whilst many of the guards, I am sure, are fine, there are reported incidences that have gone before the courts where the guards have been accused of and have pleaded guilty to violence. We need to remember that inmates are much more likely to harm themselves than to be a threat to other inmates or to guards. I believe that these reports of violence on the part of the guards mean that it is imperative that we have a judicial commission into the running of the detention centres. My own personal view is that I see nothing that suggests that Australasian Correctional Management are doing a good job of running the centres.

I think that the experience of the Wackenhut corporation overseas—the corporation that makes $400 million a year out of jailing Americans—is such that it is perhaps not the best parent company to be dealing with traumatised, recently arriving asylum seekers. Wackenhut has a bad reputation in countries such as Belgium, and even in the United States, where they have had contracts cancelled. In one juvenile centre, for example, guards were accused of beating quite young teenagers. I do not think this is a terrific organisation to be dealing with recently arrived, traumatised people.

We need to think about alternative detention models and, having read about the way that other countries deal with recently arrived asylum seekers, I think you would have to say that Australia is unique in the way that we deal with asylum seekers. There have been many alternative suggestions of ways that we could perhaps deal with asylum seekers differently, including releasing people on cash bonds to Australian citizens and electronic monitoring, which was raised by one of the church groups. Certainly the experiment in Woomera, which has released women and children into the community, is well worth watching. The model that is most often brought up as an alternative model for Australia is the reception centre model run in Sweden. Sweden has more than twice the number of asylum seekers that Australia has per capita but many fewer are detained, and it is against the law in Sweden to detain children for more than a few days.

When discussing this issue, we must remember the international context of our asylum seeker problem. There are an estimated 21 million refugees worldwide. It is worth saying that Australia needs to continue to do its fair share. Twelve thousand a year is a drop in the bucket in terms of our total immigration intake of 85,000. When you think about poor countries like Iran and Pakistan, which each deal with two million refugees, that shows that what is required of Australia is really pretty modest.

We need to act on the international stage to ensure that the underlying problems of the refugee crisis are dealt with. We spend about $120 million a year on detention, but we spend only $14 million a year on helping the UNHCR in its international refugee resettlement effort. It is worth remembering that $14 million is much less than this government spends each month on publicly paid political advertising. While $14 million sounds like a lot of money to the average Australian, when we think about the sort of money that this government wastes on political advertising, it is a tiny amount of money.

We need to remember that the idea of queue jumping is absurd in countries where every social relationship is breaking down, where any person thinking about the refugee question knows that if the lives of their children were threatened in a war zone or after a revolution, they would do anything they could to get their children out of the country and away from such a threat. It does not take a vast stretch of empathy to understand that families are often selling everything they possess—every piece of land—to get one child away from a war zone. Often they are young men, because young men are often pressed into military service. For example, the Taliban are pressing young men into walking through minefields to make sure that the minefields are safe for soldiers to cross. It is not surprising that families turn to people smugglers who are criminals. I do not resile from the fact that organised crime is involved in getting people from one country to another, but it is not surprising that parents are prepared to deal with criminals to save the life of a son who is about to be pressed into military service.

Even if these people are found not to be genuine refugees in Australia, we face a very real problem because we do not have diplomatic relations with, or direct flights to, many of the countries these people have left. That means that if these people are found not to be genuine refugees—the small proportion who are not genuine refugees—they may wait indefinitely in a detention centre in Australia because we cannot send them home to their country of origin.

We need to play a role in addressing the international issues which have created refugees. In the past, Australia played a very positive role in countries such as Cambodia in helping to bring peace to that country, and in rebuilding East Timor. We are doing an excellent job in helping East Timor re-establish itself. We also need to talk to other international organisations about debt forgiveness. Those are the sorts of things that will keep people in place and stop them having to leave their countries. We need to send home non-genuine people as quickly as possible, work with source countries where people are leaving and deal with and support international efforts to deal with the problem in an orderly way.

It is fair to say that our detention regime is no deterrent. If the choice is to be shot, you would probably prefer to end up in a camp in Australia. The temporary protection visa regime has proved to be no deterrent and neither has Mr Ruddock's nasty video which I believe has become a bit of a laughing stock amongst international diplomatic circles. Labor have committed themselves to re-establishing basic service delivery for people who are found to be genuine refugees. That is vital because integrating people into the Australian community and making sure that they learn English and get a job as soon as possible is the best way of ensuring that there is no ongoing conflict within the Australian community.

The really disgraceful thing about Minister Ruddock's position throughout this debate, not in particular on this legislation, but over the last few years, is that his position has been so much about domestic politics and so little about the lives of the people in detention and how to integrate people into the Australian community. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees called on Australia in June to stop demonising refugees just to score political points. The sort of pamphlet that we have seen in Dickson criticising Labor for being soft on refugees is absolutely aimed at clawing back One Nation voters to the Liberal Party. The minister should be absolutely ashamed of himself for allowing that sort of demonising of refugees for crass political purposes.

The Ombudsman has said that these detainees have fewer rights than jail inmates. It is worth remembering that, when the minister wanted to, he was able to find room for 200 South Lebanese Army soldiers very quickly. It is amazing that we can so quickly find room for an extra 200 SLA soldiers but there is no room for people who have been waiting in camps in Ethiopia, Iran or Afghanistan, who have been living in camps for years, or who have escaped in the most dangerous ways to come to Australia. There is no room for them, but there is room for the SLA. (Time expired)