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Thursday, 23 August 2001
Page: 30129


Mrs CROSIO (1:06 PM) —I rise to speak to the Migration Legislation Amendment (Immigration Detainees) Bill (No. 2) 2001, a bill which clearly shows that this government needs to start putting in place more effective and sensible policies to deal with the illegal immigration problem that this country is currently facing. Almost daily in Australia's current affairs and national debates a new problem arises from Australia's immigration policy. Most recently, the policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers or illegal arrivals has come under criticism from many different sections within our community. This is a debate which has been fuelled by emotive sentiment and humanitarian concerns from different sections of the community. It is an issue that must be taken very seriously indeed.

I have represented parts of the Fairfield local government area, in all three levels of government, for more than 30 years. In that time, I have formed some very close relationships with many of the cultural groups and societies within my electorate. I have also formed close associations with many of the families who have come to Australia and settled in my electorate. The member for Lowe—who spoke previously in this debate—and I have something like 120 languages spoken in our community, with 98 different ethnic groups represented. Some 52 per cent of the population of the Fairfield local government area is born overseas.

Many of these people have been separated from their close family members, many of whom are either waiting in their home countries for successful migration to Australia or, due to circumstances beyond their control, are forced to flee their country fearing persecution or violence from oppressive government regimes. While these people wait for their application for offshore refugee status to be granted, they endure some of the most appalling and horrendous conditions imaginable in overseas refugee camps. The humanitarian component of Australia's immigration laws is designed to provide assistance and asylum to these people. Unfortunately, it does not go far enough.

However, at the same time as we are experiencing a global crisis in the number of refugees we are also experiencing a thriving boom in the illegal business of people-smuggling. People-smuggling racketeers are despicable cancers on society and on the human race. They feed off the misery and desperation of other human beings for the sake of making money. I find this practice totally abhorrent. Australia's immigration laws are not there to be flouted and disrespected by people who use every trick in the book and every opportunity to lie and deceive their way through the migration laws of Australia. That is why the Labor opposition does not oppose the policy of mandatory detention for illegal arrivals. We believe that Australian laws must be respected and adhered to, and our immigration laws are no exception.

All countries screen their immigrants to ensure that migrants do not pose a serious health or security risk and are not people of bad character. It is not draconian, racist or discriminatory to perform character checks on people who apply to migrate—either on humanitarian or non-humanitarian grounds— to this country. People who have the means to employ people smugglers have really not had the same experiences as those who apply in the correct way to migrate to Australia. On arrival, people who have utilised people smugglers come with their hands in the air and say, `I am a refugee.' They say that they have had the same experiences as those people who have suffered the horrendous conditions of refugee camps. Time and again the truth has shown that many of these people have not had the same experience. They have not experienced or even seen the misery of those people in such camps as I have described. As a result of these people's actions, the number of people who can get out of those refugee camps and resettle in our country is diminishing. People who are free enough and wealthy enough to pay a people smuggler are virtually rewriting our immigration laws.

For the people in my electorate who have friends and relatives overseas waiting for resettlement, the actions of these people who employ people smugglers have made their wait so much longer. The fundamental difference is that the people who will employ people smugglers are people who are looking for a migration outcome and will try whatever visa category is available to them to stay in Australia. If that includes breaking Australia's migration law by arriving illegally, then some of them will do it. This is opposed to the plight of the refugees, who often have only one possible way of legitimate entry into Australia, and that is through our humanitarian program. Australia has to have immigration procedures that are effective, reasonable and just.

It must also be said that the opposition does not believe that some of the measures the government has taken in the past are the correct way to handle the detainee issue. It is the view of federal Labor that the problems with our detainees escaping and rioting can be dealt with and can be resolved by effective, sensible policies that are humane and take into consideration the detainees' concerns but still uphold the integrity of Australia's laws and the sovereignty to decide on the penalties for breaking them.

The bill before the House deals with our mandatory detention system. Specifically, it deals with the power of detention centre staff to perform strip searches of detainees. Labor did not support this legislation when it was first presented to the parliament because it was the view of the opposition that the measures proposed in the original legislation were invasive and showed little compassion or regard for the concerns of detainees. Federal Labor, I am pleased to say, did force this government to accept provisions relating to the strip search powers. It is due to that scrutiny and accountability by the Labor opposition—I give full marks to the shadow spokesperson on immigration, the member for Bowman, the Hon. Con Sciacca—that we now see before the House, and are debating, these amendments. Others have outlined the amendments, and I would like to restate them.

Strip searches can be conducted only on the provision that there is a reasonable suspicion of a weapon being hidden on the person and only after the suspicion is aroused after a pat-down search or a metal detector scan. A strip search can be authorised only by a senior officer of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs who is employed at deputy secretary level or above. Detainees being searched have the right to have a witness of their own choosing present during the search and, in the case of minors, the strip search must be authorised by a magistrate in addition to the senior departmental officer.

These amendments have found support from many sections of the community and have even been endorsed by refugee advocates, who have deemed this legislation now worthy of support. Labor believes that the new safeguards will prevent an abuse of powers while diminishing the risk of harm to both detainees and employees in our immigration detention centres.

Apart from dealing with the amendments proposed in this bill, I would like to make some comments regarding the complete lack of compassion and understanding from this government for the refugee problem. There have now been three separate reports within Australia—the Flood report, commissioned by this government, and the two Ombudsman reports—which have basically been ignored by the minister. Their recommendations have been quickly dismissed as being not relevant or as being impractical to implement. There has been international criticism from the United Nations of our detention centres. These comments were again dismissed by this government and this minister as being yet another example of the UN sticking its nose into the domestic affairs of a sovereign country, which is the typical response from this government to UN criticism.

Obviously there are problems in our detention centres, to the point that some worthy suggestions have been made as to how we can do something to alleviate some of the problems there. Not only do we now have the three separate reports I mentioned; we also have a bipartisan report. It did not contain a minority report; it was a bipartisan report of the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, with government backbenchers as well as opposition members arguing for, at the very least, new approaches to the policy in our detention centres. But it appears that this government will not listen to any comment about or appraisal of what to do with detainees and the refugee problem in Australia, and the government is now not coping with it.

Seeing as the minister refuses to listen to anyone, one would assume that he must have all the answers. The facts show that this is a government that has evidently done nothing to stem the flow of illegal arrivals and has not fixed the problems that are rife in our detention centres. The Howard government has no answer to the unauthorised boat arrivals problem. After all of their chest-beating and grandstanding, the Prime Minister and the minister for immigration have failed miserably to stem the numbers of asylum seekers arriving on our coastline. As recently as last night, it was reported that another 400 illegal arrivals had landed on Australia's coastline at Christmas Island. Our island administrator, a former member of this parliament, Bill Taylor, also stated that this landing of 400 on Christmas Island comes only days after 350 landed on Christmas Island and follows the occasion two days before that when 230 were intercepted at Ashmore Island.

In the last 10 years there have been approximately 12,700 unauthorised arrivals. The vast majority of those—10,000—have arrived since the Howard government came to power in March 1996. This government's policies over these five years have been focused on introducing domestic legislative changes which were supposed to help slow the number of unauthorised arrivals, but even blind Freddy could see that it is just not working. All of the legislative measures— like introduction of a new temporary protection visa regime, tougher border control measures, increased jail terms for people smugglers and boat crews, tougher laws for trouble makers in detention centres and special strip search powers—have received bipartisan support from the opposition, but the time has now come for this government to start listening and to take on board not only recommendations from other reports but also suggestions to help fix the illegal immigration problem. Introducing more domestic legislation will not deter the people smugglers.

When the minister introduced, with opposition support, a new temporary protection visa for unauthorised arrivals in 1999, he predicted that this change would provide a strong disincentive and would then stem the flow of illegal arrivals. Yet, since that bill was passed in November 1999, over 6,000 asylum seekers have arrived by boat. So it certainly deterred them! They represent almost 50 per cent of the total number of boat arrivals that have come to this country since 1989. This bill was going to stop all that.

No attempt to shift responsibility for this government's failure can disguise the fact that overseas criminals involved in the lucrative and insidious people-smuggling rackets see Australia as a soft touch. It is time for this government to get serious about curbing the flow of illegals. Federal Labor has promised an Australian coastguard service which would act as a maritime police force and send a message to overseas criminal gangs that Australia is serious about protecting its borders. Australia needs a coordinated approach to address the difficulties we face with boat landings.

The recent large number of incursions into Australian waters by illegal immigrants has focused this debate on the importance of effective border control and coastal surveillance. The Howard government has consistently failed to fully acknowledge the breadth of this issue, and this is evidenced by the statistics I have already mentioned, which prove that we now have a totally ineffective border control system. Responsibility for the protection of our borders is currently shared between five different statutory organisations, including Coastwatch, the department of immigration, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, the Federal Police and the Royal Australian Navy. An Australian coastguard will draw together the coastal surveillance resources programs and activities currently undertaken by these organisations.

The final point I would like to make in the time available to me is the issue of even contemplating renewing ACM's contract as manager of our detention centres. The numerous allegations that have been raised against ACM highlight the problems of accountability associated with privatised detention centres, especially in relation to detained asylum seekers who are not criminals. The federal opposition has been calling for a judicial review to look at the allegations that have been made and the way that these places are being managed, because in the end we do believe that violence begets violence. The government should not contemplate any tender process prior to receiving advice from a judicial inquiry. One of the questions that I personally believe a judicial inquiry should look at is whether privatisation of these facilities is acceptable. Only this would get to the bottom of all of the allegations and, I believe, clear the air to enable Australia to start afresh.

There is no easy solution to the problem of illegal arrivals. It is clearly evident that there is an international crisis of displaced persons, refugees and asylum seekers. We on this side of the House may not have all of the answers, but we can say that whatever domestic policies have been implemented by this government to date have not stopped the flow of illegal arrivals. We need to look at the committee reports more closely. We need to take on board the Ombudsman's reports and the suggestions from the refugee advocates. We need to listen to the international criticism that has been levelled at our immigration policies and learn to adjust and to change. If the minister continues to take a holier-than-thou attitude by not responding to these suggestions and reports and dismissing the recommendations as ill informed, naive and impractical, then we as a country will go nowhere towards having an immigration policy that both respects the integrity of Australia's laws and offers effective processing and fairness to asylum seekers.

This is a very, very difficult task. I am not saying that everything is very simple. What we are just saying, as I tried to point out in all fairness in this debate, is that the problem is there and we are not solving it. We cannot have criticism where the government of the day stands on a soapbox and says, `It is only the Labor opposition that is stopping this problem being solved.' We are saying that we have cooperated on most of the pieces of legislation coming before the House and we have renegotiated to make sure that other pieces of legislation, such as the bill we are debating today, come forward and problems are dealt with in a humane and practical way.

We repeatedly have at our doorstep evidence showing that the process is not working. We cannot continue to have people smugglers determine when or from where we are going to take our immigration settlers. I believe that we have to control that. I appeal to the minister and the government to look closely at the reports, to at least get another view as to what is happening and, more particularly, to not always take on board criticism as being directed individually or personally; it is directed at the process. The process is not working, and that is what needs to be changed.