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Thursday, 27 May 1993
Page: 1564


Senator SHORT (10.46 p.m.) —The so-called interim response that the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel (Senator Faulkner) has presented to the Senate as a response to the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration Regulations on Australia's refugee and humanitarian system entitled Australia's Refugee and Humanitarian System: Achieving a Balance between Refuge and Control, which is a very important report by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration Regulations, is nothing more than a letter that was written to the then chairman of the joint standing committee, Dr Theophanous, by the then Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Gerry Hand, on 5 February this year. It is worth noting what that response says. It is the three-paragraph letter which has been presented to the Senate tonight as the Government's response to the report. The letter says:

Dear Andrew

I refer to the Joint Standing Committee's report of August 1992 "Australia's Refugee and Humanitarian System: Achieving a Balance between Refuge and Control". As you know, the deadline for the Government's response to the report expired on 14 December 1992.

The report has raised a number of complex issues which require further investigation and consideration before a substantive response can be formulated.

Work on a response is currently being undertaken and I would expect to bring the matter to Cabinet early in 1993 for tabling in the Autumn sitting of Parliament.

Yours sincerely

GERRY HAND

It is dated 5 February 1993. In other words, this so-called interim response to the joint standing committee's report is no response at all. It is simply a letter signed by the then Minister saying that he had not got a response, that he hoped to get a response through Cabinet and that he would present that response in the autumn session of this Parliament.

  When he wrote that letter in February this year, the response was already two months late. The deadline for the response was 14 December 1992. We have now come to the end of the autumn sittings still with no response to the committee's report. The deadline has now, therefore, been exceeded by something like six months. As I assume we will not be able to get a response until the Budget sittings, we are talking about a situation where the Government has had a delay of not far short of 12 months in presenting a response to the Senate on one of a Senate committee's more important reports of recent times.

  If that is the best the new Minister, Senator Bolkus, can produce at this stage of his new ministerial career, then I am afraid it sends some very dangerous signals about his ability to address the urgent problems of Australia's handling of refugee and humanitarian migration.

  The report certainly does raise and deal with complex issues and it certainly does require a careful response by the Government, but to delay a response by the amount of time that this one has been delayed I believe is disgraceful and inexcusable. That joint standing committee report is important, because as it states in its foreword:

. . . a refugee crisis of proportions not seen since the Second World War has been developing on a global scale. Australia, like many other countries around the world, has been faced with an increasing number of asylum seekers applying for refugee status either once they have entered the country or upon arrival at the border. The dramatic growth in on-shore asylum seekers is a major international problem, which is likely to become considerably worse.

The report provides principles and policies which need to be adopted within our onshore refugee and humanitarian system. The refugee problem, as we all know, is immense. As is pointed out on page 39 of this report, general refugee claimants have increased tenfold over the last three years alone.

  The cost to Australian taxpayers is escalating. The cost of maintaining the boat people in detention centres alone is now more than $21 million. The cost of providing legal assistance to these asylum seekers has been almost $1 1/2 million in the last two years alone—and that excludes the costs involved in litigation. The boat people currently on our shores comprise only one aspect of Australia's total refugee and humanitarian intake.

  The massive increase in onshore refugee applicants has come about largely because of then Prime Minister Hawke's statement that no Chinese student in Australia at the time of the Tiananmen Square incident should be forced to return home. Plus, the numbers of onshore refugee applicants have been swollen by the arrival on our shores of nearly 700 boat people from the PRC and Cambodia.

  Processing the applications from the many thousands of Chinese students applying for refugee status, from both those who were here at the time of the Tiananmen Square tragedy and those who have arrived since, has created a massive problem for the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. We urgently need a response from the Government on how it proposes to handle the 17,000 pre-Tiananmen Square tragedy Chinese students in Australia and their 9,000 dependents. Those 26,000 people have a four-year so-called special category of temporary resident permit granted by then Prime Minister Hawke which expires on 30 June next year, just 12 months hence. The Government has to date done no pre-processing of these people in advance of that date.

  We also have the problem of the detaining by the Australian Government of Chinese and Cambodian boat people in detention centres on our shores. Some of the detainees have been here for more than three years without resolution of their cases. The Human Rights Commissioner, Brian Burdekin, has expressed a number of major concerns about Australia's human rights obligations under domestic and international law in respect of those detainees.

  I am delighted that the Senate has today referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Migration Regulations a reference in relation to this whole question of detention of persons who enter Australia without valid entry permits. It is a very important subject indeed. It is one which this joint committee report, to which the Government has refused to give a response, deals with and it heightens the significance of the report.

  These are urgent and pressing matters. I am amazed and disgusted that the Government has taken so long and still failed to produce any response at all to the committee's report. It is a matter of considerable urgency. I would urge Senator Bolkus to get a government response to this report as soon as possible. Whether it is possible to do that and to have it available to honourable senators during the recess I do not know. I would have thought it should, but I do stress to you, Mr Deputy President, and to the Senate the seriousness of the subject, the urgency of the matter with which we are dealing and the urgency of the need to get a response. I hope that that will be conveyed to the Minister as a matter of top priority.