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Thursday, 20 June 2002
Page: 4016

Mr RUDDOCK (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Reconciliation) (10:01 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

At the outset of this debate I would like to acknowledge that today is World Refugee Day. The significance of this day should not be lost on this debate, a debate centred on strong border protection thereby enabling Australia to provide effective resettlement options for those refugees in the most vulnerable of situations.

Last year the parliament passed amendments to the Migration Act which in effect excised the ability of a person arriving without authority at certain offshore places, such as Christmas Island and Ashmore and Cartier Islands, to apply for a visa to enter and remain lawfully in Australia.

These amendments also included authority for regulations to be made to extend this visa application bar to other islands and external territories by including those islands within the definition of excised offshore places.

On 7 June 2002 I recommended to the Governor-General the making of regulations to extend the area of excised offshore places to cover islands off the north-west of Western Australia, islands off the Northern Territory, islands off Far North Queensland, and the Coral Sea Islands Territory.

These regulations were made following receipt of advice from the government's People Smuggling Task Force, who were concerned that people smugglers were intending to attempt to send boatloads of unauthorised arrivals either to Australia or to other countries, such as New Zealand, via waters off Northern Australia.

Yesterday the opposition and minor parties combined in the Senate to disallow these regulations. This is an extraordinary outcome. An act that received the support of the opposition last year to fight the invidious trade of people-smuggling is in effect being overturned by the very same opposition.

It is like saying that we were serious about fighting people-smuggling last year but we are no longer serious. Be assured that people smugglers monitor very closely what we are doing in this parliament. They may very well interpret the actions of the opposition and minority parties as a green light to attempt to recommence their operations and move to target areas closer to the Australian mainland.

Such a signal would have disastrous consequences not only for our efforts to thwart the actions of people-smugglers but for those people who are being smuggled. Our information suggests that some of the boats are poorly equipped. Now that the smugglers have been given a green light to attempt to send these boats to an island closer to the Australian mainland, they may well attempt to do so.

This government will not allow this. That is why we are introducing this bill today.

This bill is just the latest of an integrated set of legislative and administrative measures that the government has undertaken over the past three years to combat this growing trade in people-smuggling.

Initiatives taken within Australia and with other countries in the region over the past three years include:

the introduction of border protection legislation in 1999, and increased resources to ensure improved Coastwatch, Customs and Navy capabilities to detect, pursue, intercept and board boats that carry unauthorised arrivals;

further enhancements to these legislative measures that were enacted in September 2001;

changes to the Migration Act to increase the maximum period of imprisonment for people trafficking to 20 years with a mandatory minimum sentence of five years imprisonment for those who are organising people-smuggling, and fines of up to $220,000;

the increasing of the number of specialist compliance officers in key overseas posts, to work with police locally and immigration officials to identify foreign nationals trying to enter Australia illegally—and of course these efforts resulted in the disruption of many people-smuggling operations;

the placement of departmental officers in key overseas airports where they train airline check-in staff to identify bogus documentation and advise airlines on Australia's entry requirements, so preventing the illegal travel of thousands of people to this country;

the posting of specialist liaison officers to key overseas posts for bilateral and multilateral liaison on readmission and resettlement, technical and border management capacity, processing of the humanitarian caseload, and government identity, character and security checking;

ongoing short-term visits to key countries by departmental document examiners, to provide specialist training and technical support to overseas immigration services and to airline and travel staff;

the maintaining of multifunction task forces both in Australia and overseas to coordinate investigations, collect intelligence and maintain close liaison with law enforcement agencies investigating immigration fraud; and

the frequent updating of Australia's movement alert lists, a key tool governing the entry of non-citizens who are of security and character concern.

Australia is also an active participant in a number of international programs that work to combat people-smuggling. These include:

the intergovernmental consultations on asylum, refugee and migration policies in Europe, North America and Australia;

the Asia-Pacific consultations on refugees, displaced persons and migrants;

the irregular migration and migrant trafficking in East-Asia and South East Asia; and

the Pacific Rim immigration intelligence officers conference.

In February 2002, Australia company-hosted, with Indonesia, the regional ministerial conference on people-smuggling, trafficking in persons and related transnational crime, held in Indonesia.

All this activity, together with legislative measures passed by parliament over the past year, has had a dramatic effect on people smugglers targeting Australia. Their targeting of Australia as a favourable destination was very self-evident. There have been no substantial boat arrivals at the Australian mainland since August last year.

However, we can not be complacent, as our information indicates that there are still people smugglers active in our region who are exploring ways of continuing their trade, either to Australia or to other countries.

Without going into detail, we have credible information that people smugglers are still operating in Indonesia. There are several thousand people who are seeking movement by people smugglers. These smugglers are still actively seeking to put together boats to travel either to Australia or through the Torres Strait to destinations in the Pacific.

These activities have also been reported in the Indonesian media.

There have also been reports of a boat which is believed to be currently attempting a journey towards Australia, with the reported aim of sailing through the Torres Strait to New Zealand.

Without the amendments made by this bill, should that vessel or any other attempt to come either through the Torres Strait or to outlying islands of Australia, it would be possible for these unlawful arrivals to gain access to Australia's extensive visa application processes and the accompanying very liberal interpretation of the Refugees Convention.

Turning to the amendments made by the bill, the definition of `excised offshore place' is expanded to include the same islands off the coasts of Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and the Coral Sea Islands territory that were covered by the earlier regulations.

There has been a considerable amount of scaremongering by the opposition about the government reducing either Australian territory or Australia's borders. This is plainly absurd and merely demonstrates opposition members' inability to understand the laws which they have passed.

In order to educate opposition members, I will make the following comments about the effect of these amendments.

Mr RUDDOCK —I should have spent some time with you in the Northern Territory. I could have elaborated on this matter.

The provisions of the Migration Act continue to apply to these islands. The legislative changes made by this bill do not affect Australian sovereignty over these islands. The islands remain integral parts of Australia.

What will be `excised' is the ability of a person arriving without authority at one of the new excised offshore places to apply for a visa to enter and remain lawfully in Australia. In short, these people would have no right to make any application for the grant of a visa under the Migration Act.

This visa bar is set out in section 46A of the Migration Act. This bar continues to apply to those persons while they remain unlawfully in Australia. This section was inserted into the Migration Act by the amendments that were passed by this parliament in September 2001.

The bill will not restrict any Australian citizen or valid visa holder from moving about within Australia, including to or from these islands. Visa holders can also continue to make any visa application permitted by the act.

As the act continues to apply to these islands, there will be no impact whatsoever on the traditional movements of inhabitants of the Torres Strait protected zone. These people will continue to be able to move about as freely as before.

Expansion of the excised offshore places by this bill sends a very strong message to people smugglers that we remain alert and are prepared to move quickly to take measures to counter their operations.

The expansion also makes it significantly harder for people smugglers to get to an area where visa applications may be made, where they can dump their human cargo and escape without detection.

The risks to people smugglers of capture and prosecution are far greater with the implementation of these changes than would have been the case with the regulations that we had previously sought to operate.

The choice for the opposition is now clear. They can either support strong and effective border controls or they can contribute to the weakening of Australia's borders and the perils arising from this action.

I would like to stress that all the measures outlined in this bill and that have been initiated by this government over the past three years to combat people-smuggling are done so that we can most effectively resettle those persons seeking refuge who are most in need and most at risk.

Currently the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are some 19.7 million persons of concern around the world. With the current rate of return to Afghanistan, it is likely that this number will decrease by another two million in the present year, leading to an overall decrease of some 10 million since 1994. It is very interesting that the figures in 1994 were of the order of 27 million and at the end of this year they are likely to be of the order of 17 million—more than a one-third decrease in the number of refugees. Australia aims, through its humanitarian program, to assist in resolving the situation of those people who have the most urgent need for resettlement outcomes. To resettle in Australia all of those who are found to be refugees internationally never has been and never would be a viable option. Our objective is to resettle some 12,000 persons each year who are in greatest need and to prioritise those who are in need of assistance—those who are at risk if they remain where they are and have no other means of escape other than resettlement to a third country.

While our desire to assist those persons is strong, Australia has a finite capacity to give practical effect to this objective. The pressure placed on our resources by those arriving in Australia without authority, and seeking to engage our obligations to provide protection, limits our capacity to assist those at greatest risk.

People smugglers seek to exploit the situation by manipulating those persons who can afford to and are prepared to pay comparatively large sums of money to enter Australia without authority.

People smuggling is big business. The International Organisation for Migration estimates the worldwide proceeds of people smuggling to be $US10 billion a year.

On average, it costs the Australian government $50,000 for every unauthorised arrival by boat from the time of arrival to the time of their departure from Australia, if they have no lawful basis to be here.

Some asylum seekers come here from countries where there is little risk of persecution, but which are simply less prosperous than Australia. They are encouraged by people smugglers to believe that they can use our refugee determination processes to obtain the right to work in Australia or to access health services and other support at Australian taxpayer expense while their claims are assessed.

One of the core values underpinning Australia's immigration policy is that we—the government of Australia representing the people of Australia—must have the capacity to manage the movement of people across our borders in an orderly and efficient manner. Otherwise, the idea of a managed immigration policy rapidly becomes meaningless.

The government is well aware of its obligations not to refoule—in other words, to offer protection to those who have a requirement for it. We never will refoule and we never have.

We are equally aware, however, that our international obligations do not give people any right to demand residence in Australia.

In closing, I would like to reiterate that this bill is the next step in the government's considered and comprehensive strategy to maintain the integrity Australia's borders and its migration program.

The opposition has the choice either to contribute to Australia's national interests through supporting effective immigration controls, or to send a signal that on these matters Australia is a soft touch.

For those reasons, I commend the bill to the chamber for urgent passage and I present an explanatory memorandum.