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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 7069

Mrs MOYLAN (5:53 PM) —I have always deeply felt that at the core of any public policy should be the preservation of human dignity and human life and that placing these as first principles of public policy does not, in any way, detract from our responsibility in this place, particularly in relation to refugees. That responsibility is not diminished by undertaking those first principles, by government or by opposition benches, to implement and insist on a strong border protection policy. Citizens have a right to expect the government will maintain a strong border protection policy and to keep the country safe from foreign invasion, to protect Australian territorial waters and industrial interests. The difficulty with this issue rests with the ability to separate two key issues. The first is the protection of our borders and the second is the way we treat refugees or asylum seekers when they arrive in our territories and are found to be genuine refugees.

Too often these issues become clouded in the miasma of political debate, which leads to demonising people who arrive by boat seeking asylum. This process is aided by the mantra that they are illegal entrants and queuejumpers. The rejoinder is that Australia has long been a signatory to the international convention on refugees and there are strict guidelines to determine the validity of a claim for refugee status. In many conflict zones, queues do not exist and there are few stopping-off points between some of the conflict zones and Australia. Malaysia or Indonesia are the most likely destinations, but these countries are not signatories to the international convention on refugees and they have no regulatory framework to protect them. Indonesia is working towards signing the refugee convention in 2010. However, there is also a need for the development of a regulatory framework and that could take some time.

Many important changes to the immigration detention policies have been made in recent years, as my colleague the member for Kooyong very eloquently outlined to the House earlier today. These changes were made to ensure that the policy is administered more humanely. What we are debating here tody is a remnant of legislation that seeks to abolish billing refugees for accommodation in mandatory detention. It is important to stress, though, that the change to the act does not apply to illegal fishermen or to people smugglers who profit from their nefarious activities. They will continue to be billed.

In a recent report of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration titled Immigration detention in Australia: a new beginning, Julian Burnside QC is quoted as saying:

Australia is the only country in the world which charges innocent people the cost of incarcerating them.

This is not a distinction that is deserving of much merit.

No-one can condone the action of people smugglers. They trade on the desperation of people fleeing war, political persecution or religious intolerance, in the main, and there is a view that by maintaining this policy of charging it would deter further boats from coming to Australia and would send a signal to people smugglers. The fact is that this measure was implemented through a change to the Migration Act in 1992 to the effect that all unlawful noncitizens would bear primary responsibility for the cost of their detention. It was implemented, as one of my other colleagues said, under a Labor government and was carried on under the coalition. It was never intended to act as a deterrent, nor has it been demonstrated that it has any deterrent value. In fact, on the back of the Iraq war we saw a substantial wave of boat people arrive in 2001.

The boat arrivals are more likely to be linked to the escalation of war and conflict around the globe than with our domestic policy. Moreover, these waves should be kept in perspective and a few boatloads of people cannot be construed as a threat to national security, despite the hysterical headlines announcing every new boat arrival. The ensuing letter to the editor pages in our newspapers express concern that the new arrivals may be terrorists, may introduce unwanted diseases or are just economic refugees, and the more extravagant raise prejudices against people of particular religious beliefs.

The fact that all people arriving by boat seeking refugee status are placed in detention until health, security and identity checks are complete should allay most reasonable fears. With a combination, though, of hysterical headlines and at times disingenuous debate, it is unsurprising that there is public disquiet about these new arrivals. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Richard Towle, who gave evidence before the Joint Committee on Migration, did say that it would be in the interests of refugees, advocates and the public to have greater clarity and transparency of the assessment process and of the regulatory and legislative framework. This, he argued, is particularly so with the regular arrivals who come with false documents or no documentation. I would certainly support any action which would make these processes more transparent and open to public scrutiny because it would remove some of those unwarranted fears.

To further address security fears, of the 5,986 security checks on boat arrivals in 2000 and 2002, the Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation reported that no individual had been assessed as a security risk and, in 2004-2005, ASIO reported that two unauthorised arrivals, from a total of 4,223 assessments, gave rise to some concerns. I think that included all unlawful arrivals, not just those by boat.

The escalation of violence in Afghanistan, recent troubles in Sri Lanka and continuing brutalities in Burma are the main reasons for the stark choices asylum seekers confront: facing terror in their homelands or risking the chance of gaining passage on leaky boats. We witnessed the risks and the ensuring tragedy recently, when a boat carrying a number of refugees caught fire. The loss of life and serious injuries that followed shocked this nation.

The hysteria about the number of arrivals should be seen in the context of those current adverse events and in comparison to the numbers received by some of our closest allies. Indicative of escalating conflicts in many countries around the globe, refugee numbers increased in 2008 by 12 per cent worldwide. This followed a 20-year low in the number of refugees worldwide in 2006. The increase in 2007 came largely on the back of the Iraqi conflict and in 2008 it was driven by escalating troubles in Afghanistan and Somalia. The UNHCR reports that Australia is ranked 69th in per capita terms for hosting refugees, representing 0.2 per cent of the global total, but Australia is ranked first for its official refugee resettlement program, which is indeed very generous. We can be very proud of that record. In 2008, Australia recorded approximately 4,700 asylum claims, which is well below the 2000 and 2001 figures of 13,100 and 12,400 respectively. By contrast, Canada, a country of about 34 million people, registered 36,900 claims in 2008, an increase of 30 per cent on the 2007 claims.

I have worked over the past several years with my colleagues the member for McMillan, the member for Kooyong and others to change the Migration Act, including the release of families with children from detention centres, a reporting system to parliament by the Immigration Ombudsman at six-monthly intervals regarding people who are held in detention for lengthy periods and improved assessment processes to reduce the time people spend in detention. I welcome the bipartisan agreement of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration which, amongst other measures, recommended that the practice of charging refugees costs incurred while in immigration detention be discontinued. The agreement reads:

The Committee recommends that, as a priority, the Australian Government introduce legislation to repeal the liability of immigration detention costs.

The Committee further recommends that the Minister for Finance and Deregulation make the determination to waive existing detention debts for all current and former detainees, effective immediately, and that all reasonable efforts be made to advise existing debtors of this decision.

The cost of detention is about $125 a day. It applies to detention centres, residential centres and community detention. Spouses and dependent children are also liable for the charges. A one-year detention period would result in a charge of about $45,000. Given that many people were held in detention for periods of two to five years, the charges are very substantial, particularly in the case of a family. In one case outlined in the report, the family had incurred a debt of $340,000. According to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the total amount of debt recovered since 2004 has been low, at between one and four per cent. This year, the estimated cost of administration will be higher than the debts collected.

There were many submissions critical of this policy, with one witness branding it ‘manifestly harsh and unjust’. I have witnessed firsthand the trauma this policy causes asylum seekers, who barely out of detention receive a substantial bill which they have little hope of paying in the foreseeable future, if ever. It is distressing for them because they do not know that there might be mechanisms within this parliament to waive these fees unless somebody in the community who knows about it tells them. Many people in this place, I hazard to say, do not know about that.

On release, asylum seekers often find work that is poorly remunerated. The cumulative effects of years of trauma take their toll and further add to the difficulties many confront when released. The dishonour of knowing that they cannot pay any time in the foreseeable future causes a loss of dignity in people who have been accustomed to honouring their commitments. In any event, it contributes to the financial hardship faced by many refugees. It is very detrimental to a person’s attempt to settle into life in a new country.

Given that there is no demonstrated deterrent value in making this charge and the fact that in reality it is rarely collected, there can be only one reason for continuing such a policy, and that is a punitive one. I do not think that these are the kinds of people that we really need to further punish—I think they have been punished enough. The argument for abandoning this punitive measure was clearly articulated in 2006, when the coalition was in government, by the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee report on the administration and operation of the Migration Act 1958. In relation to the detention costs being charged to asylum seekers, the report read:

The evidence clearly indicates that the imposition of detention costs is an extremely harsh policy and one that is likely to cause significant hardship to a large number of people. The imposition of a blanket policy without regard to individual circumstances is inherently unreasonable and may be so punitive in some cases as to effectively amount to a fine. The committee agrees—

and the committee is a bipartisan committee—

 that it is a serious injustice to charge people for the cost of detention. This is particularly so in the case of unauthorised arrivals, many of whom have spent months and years in detention … the committee therefore recommends that it be abolished and all existing debts be waived.

Given that not one but two bipartisan committees have strongly recommended that the policy be discontinued, I have to say that I am extremely disappointed that once again politics are played at the expense of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

In summary it is clear that the legislation which imposes a daily charge for asylum seekers being held in detention does not prevail in any jurisdiction other than Australia. It does not apply to criminals or those held in other forms of detention. It has no demonstrated deterrent factor. It is a debt that is rarely collected. It hampers the resettlement of refugees. And it was the subject of two bipartisan inquiries, with unanimous recommendations to discontinue the charge. Mr Deputy Speaker, I suppose you could further add to that list the fact that, from this year’s figures, it is costing more to administer the collection of the debt than the income that it is deriving.

Given the thoroughness of the reports, I believe we should be supporting this legislation. It is time to move away from the dehumanising of people arriving in this country in boats seeking asylum. As someone said about recent boat arrivals, ‘It’s not a flood; it is a trickle.’ Ironically, while we are worrying about these few loads of boat people arriving, we are ignoring the real border protection issues. In Western Australia, we have the vast coastline of the Indian Ocean. It is home to immense gas reserves and it is rich in minerals, yet I believe this coastline does not receive the kind of attention or the protection that it merits. We should turn our minds to a serious debate about the real national security issues that effectively protect our borders.

Let me conclude by acknowledging the work of the standing committee on migration and the earlier work by the committee on legal and constitutional affairs for their thorough consideration of detention policies and the very careful considerations that have led to the legislative changes that are proposed in this bill.

I support the changes to the Migration Act to abolish detention charges for refugees.