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Thursday, 11 May 2006
Page: 7

Mr ROBB (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) (9:28 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

On 13 April 2006 the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs announced the government’s decision to introduce legislation as soon as possible to further strengthen border control measures in relation to unauthorised boat arrivals. The amendments proposed in this bill will give effect to that decision.

The offshore processing arrangements introduced in October 2001 have been an outstanding success in ensuring that the integrity of Australia’s borders can be maintained, while preserving Australia’s strong commitment to refugee protection.

Under the existing arrangements, unauthorised arrivals at certain offshore parts of Australia which have been identified as ‘excised offshore places’ are prevented from making valid applications for visas, including protection visas, in Australia, unless the minister considers such an application to be in the public interest. Such persons may be removed to a declared country outside Australia for processing of any claims that they are owed refugee protection under the refugees convention as amended by the refugees protocol.

These arrangements have proven their worth. However, it is important that Australia continually review its policy and legislation in this critical area to ensure that proper arrangements are in place to deal with new developments. Border protection requires continued vigilance and the government has formed the view that there should be some redefining of the persons to whom the offshore processing arrangements will apply.

It seems incongruous that an unauthorised boat arrival at an excised offshore place is subject to offshore processing arrangements, while an unauthorised boat arrival travelling, in some cases, only a few kilometres further to the Australian mainland is able to access the onshore protection arrangements, with the consequential opportunities for protracted merits review and litigation processes. The landing on mainland Australia of a group of unauthorised boat arrivals from Indonesia in January 2006 highlighted this incongruous outcome.

The essence of this bill therefore is to broaden the group of people to whom offshore processing arrangements will apply. This expanded group, referred to as ‘designated unauthorised arrivals’, will include the existing group of people who arrive unauthorised at offshore entry places. It will also include persons arriving unauthorised by boat on the Australian mainland.

The introduction of the offshore processing arrangements in 2001 was greeted in some quarters with a degree of concern and criticism. Some claimed the offshore processing arrangements were a sign of Australia resiling from its international obligations. Nothing can be further from the truth.

Since 2001, there have been 1,547 people processed offshore under these arrangements. All had access to reliable refugee assessment processes, undertaken either by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or by trained Australian officers. Not one person found to be a refugee in the offshore processes has been forced to return to their homeland. This record has demonstrated that the government has delivered on its obligations under the refugees convention to all of the people processed under those arrangements.

It is important to note that the key elements of the original offshore processing arrangements which guarantee the proper care and protection for asylum seekers, and their access to a reliable refugee assessment process, will continue for the new group of designated unauthorised arrivals.

Such persons may only be sent for offshore processing to declared countries. The minister may only declare a country where satisfied that it will provide a place of safety for asylum seekers, where their refugee claims can be assessed, and from which resettlement or voluntary return of refugees can be arranged.

Arrangements have been put in place to ensure that the offshore processing centre on Nauru is available to house and care for any new groups being transferred offshore for processing under the proposed legislation. The Australian government will ensure the continued access by any such people to a reliable refugee assessment process. If necessary, Australian officers are available to conduct this work using arrangements originally developed in consultation with the UNHCR and modelled closely on the process used by UNHCR itself. In line with the existing offshore arrangements, any person found to be owed refugee protection will be able to remain safe in the offshore processing location while resettlement is arranged.

It is important to note that the refugees convention does not prescribe the processes which signatory states must follow to identify refugees. The convention also does not establish an entitlement for asylum seekers to choose the country in which their claims will be assessed or in which protection will be provided. These are issues for sovereign states to settle.

The existing provisions which allow a person being processed offshore to be brought to Australia for a temporary purpose, such as to receive medical treatment, will continue in respect of designated unauthorised arrivals. The right for such a person, if they have remained in Australia for more than six months, to request an assessment by the Refugee Review Tribunal of their refugee claims, will also continue.

The bill will introduce a requirement for the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to report annually on offshore processing arrangements and refugee assessment outcomes, and for these reports to be tabled in both houses of parliament.

Certain persons not intended to be caught by the offshore processing arrangements will be exempted from the definition of designated unauthorised arrivals. These include New Zealand citizens, permanent residents of Norfolk Island and persons brought to Australia purely for Customs Act purposes. The bill also allows the minister to declare that specified persons or classes of persons are exempt. This will provide flexibility to avoid the arrangements being extended to those not intended to be covered by the changes.

Sound border management requires such flexibility, recognising the range of complex circumstances that can apply to a person’s arrival in Australia without a visa. For example, a person who has been medically evacuated from a commercial vessel at sea, and who has inadvertently engaged these provisions by arriving in Australia without a visa, could be such a case. The person may have had no intention to come to Australia, and their circumstances may warrant a more flexible approach.

In announcing these changes on 13 April the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs made it clear that the new legislation would apply to people arriving from that date, and that any new boat arrivals from that date can expect to be processed offshore. If a person arrives unauthorised by boat on or after 13 April 2006 and has a visa application still on hand when the bill commences, that visa application will become invalid. In such cases, the individual will be liable for transfer offshore for processing of any asylum claims, as foreshadowed in the announcement.

The legislation will not affect the visa status of any person who has arrived in mainland Australia before 13 April 2006. Any applications for visas lodged in Australia by such persons will continue to be processed in Australia in the normal manner.

This bill marks an important strengthening of Australia’s border control measures. It strengthens our capacity to deal sensibly and flexibly with unauthorised boat arrivals. The changes proposed in the legislation reflect the government’s continuing focus on ensuring that there are appropriate and effective capabilities in place to manage our borders and preserve Australia’s sovereignty.

Debate (on motion by Mr Gavan O’Connor) adjourned.