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Thursday, 30 August 2001
Page: 30689

Dr THEOPHANOUS (4:22 PM) —I will speak only for five minutes. I want not to repeat all the things I said yesterday but to take up some of the issues raised regarding what we can do about these matters and about the government's claim that the Australian nation appears to be a soft touch and a soft target for refugees. I was a bit surprised that the member for Sturt actually made these comments in light of the fact that, in the last two years in particular, all sorts of very tough policies have been put into place for the treatment of refugee claimants in this country. Every time we heard about these policies, their whole intention became clearer: `Aha, we have to send this message that we are being really tough so that Australia does not look like a soft target; in doing that, we will deter people from coming here.' The whole concept of `refugee' is misunderstood by those who think that the people who come here are doing so because somehow they have decided, `Let's go on a nice trip.' These people are coming here because they are being persecuted and they are in real trouble. Even the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs has admitted that there are 20 million or more refugees around the world. There are refugees because there are persecution, violence and abuse of human rights. That is why there are refugees.

By putting into place all these deterrent actions, have we succeeded in actually reducing the number of people in flight? Of course not. The number of people has not been reduced because the problem of refugees internationally is a very serious one. Are we receiving a disproportionate number of refugees in Australia? Of course we are not receiving a disproportionate number. The fact of the matter is that there are people crossing borders throughout the world, especially into richer Western countries, and many of these people are refugees. Germany, for example, has between 70,000 and 100,000 people a year crossing its borders; Italy has between 30,000 and 40,000 people a year. Do those countries go around behaving in this way, trying to maintain that they have no international obligations? They do not. It is time for us to recognise that we have international obligations in this matter.

I said yesterday that eventually, whether we like it or not, this matter will have to be resolved by Australia. Let us try and get some agreement in this chamber on ways and means of dealing with the refugee issue in a humanitarian way. If the minister has serious concerns, such as the issue of excessive appeals to the courts, let us deal with those on their merits. I have suggested to the minister a way in which this matter can actually be confronted and resolved. Let us show some imagination and let us deal with those particular concerns on their merits. But we are not talking here about people who want to abuse the Federal Court system; we are talking here about people who are desperate, who are fleeing from persecution. As I mentioned yesterday, a significant number of these people are coming with whole families, including women and children—and numbers of other women and children are coming because the husband has already been accepted here on a temporary three-year visa.

As the Australian newspaper said today, on the basis of the statistics, if we accept that two-thirds of such people will be accepted, as has happened with previous boatloads, that means that at least two-thirds of the people on this boat are genuine refugees— many of whom have relatives in Australia. But we are saying, `Turn them away; we have no responsibility.' This is absurd. This is an absurd way to approach this issue.

The member for Sturt and the minister have said, `Oh, but if they were in Indonesia they would be treated differently; more of them would be rejected under the tougher UNHCR definition than they would be here under Australia's refugee definition.' Are we to say that, because our refugee definition is a compassionate one, we should change it and we should not have a compassionate one? This great country has so much available for people—and I might point out that refugees are people who have contributed to this nation. I appeal to the Prime Minister to think about how this matter will be resolved in the long term. I ask him to try and bring to this chamber a compassionate approach so that we can all get together and resolve this issue on a national basis, and save Australia's international reputation.

Mr SPEAKER —Order! The discussion is concluded. I have returned to the chair to give members the opportunity to ask questions of the chair or for the making of personal explanations.