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Looking to the future, learning from the past: keynote address to the UNSW Refugee Conference, Sydney

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Minister for Immigration and Citizenship

UNSW Refugee Conference:

Looking to the Future, Learning From the Past

Keynote address


17 June 2011




Thank you, Eileen [Dr Eileen Pittaway, Director, Centre for Refugee Research], and

thank you for the opportunity to be here today, to contribute to this important


It may be somewhat of an understatement to say that refugee policy in this country

ignites passions like few other subjects.

I can attest that refugee policy is one area of public policy on which almost every

Australian has an opinion - invariably a strong one. And I don’t think Australia is

alone in that experience.

I don’t hesitate to say, however, that Australia has a positive experience in the

resettlement of refugees over recent decades.

We are proud of the fact we have been able to provide refuge to 750,000 people

since World War II.

But Australia has also, unquestionably in my view, benefited from the social,

economic and cultural contribution of those refugees over those decades.

I’m delighted today to launch a new report which underlines the evidence for that


Professor Graeme Hugo is with us today and I’m delighted to use this opportunity to

launch his in-depth report on the contribution of refugees to our society.


The Hugo Report

Australia’s Humanitarian Program is something all Australians can and should be

proud of. Since 1945, more than three-quarters of a million people have found

refuge from harm, and a new life, in Australia.

As a lifetime residence of Fairfield in Western Sydney, where so many refugees have

settled, I’ve seen first-hand the challenges that many refugees have had to

overcome and also the benefits they have individually and collectively brought to


Anecdotally, we’ve long known that refugees and their children have usually turned

out to be highly successful members of our society but we haven’t always been able

to substantiate this with concrete research.

Now, I’m very pleased to say, we have that evidence.

My department commissioned Professor Graeme Hugo, from the University of

Adelaide, to undertake a detailed study of the economic, social and civic

contributions of both first and second generation humanitarian entrants.

Professor Hugo is one of Australia’s foremost demographers and I am delighted to

formally release his report today.

I am also releasing an accompanying booklet, which summarises the findings of

Professor Hugo’s research and gives examples of humanitarian entrants who have

made a significant contribution to our nation.


At first, of course, they must overcome the challenges of building a new life within a

culture they may know little or nothing about.

There are many obstacles they must overcome, including usually learning a new

language and new ways of doing things.

Often they have come from situations of extended and severe trauma and total


The challenges are great, but they do not face them alone.

The government provides a range of settlement services to assist humanitarian

entrants after their arrival in Australia, and we are always seeking new and better

ways to help people settle as quickly as possible.

Of course, as recent experience in Newcastle has shown, we don’t always get it right

- but, where we find shortcomings, we act quickly to remedy them.

In his report, Professor Hugo finds that, despite their traumatic experiences prior to

coming to Australia, refugees and humanitarian entrants make a significant and

unique contribution to the Australian community.

For starters, refugees provide a demographic dividend to Australia, as they have

the youngest age profile of all migrant groups and have the largest proportion of

dependent-age children, who will be educated in Australia.

They are also the least likely of all migrant groups to permanently leave Australia.


Secondly, there is evidence of increased settlement in non-metropolitan areas,

creating social and economic benefits for rural and regional communities.

So far this program year, around 20 per cent of humanitarian entrants have settled

in regional areas. This is up from 10.9 per cent in 2004-05 and 17.5 per cent in


By way of example, about 250 refugees have settled in Rockhampton this year and

are working at the local abattoir, while 120 others have found jobs in horticulture

around the Coonawarra region of South Australia.

Thirdly, Professor Hugo examined in detail the labour market contribution of

humanitarian entrants.

He acknowledges, as does the Government, that employment and participation by

humanitarian entrants is low in the short-term.

Given the cultural, language and economic barriers humanitarian entrants face, as

well as the traumatic experience of fleeing persecution, this is hardly surprising.

There’s no point sugar-coating it. Institutional barriers to workforce participation -

such as a lack of contacts, local experience or recognised qualifications - invariably

make getting a job all the more difficult.

But, while humanitarian entrants have the lowest incomes of migrant groups and are

more likely to work in manual occupations, they play an important role in meeting a

definite demand in the Australian labour market.


Further, Professor Hugo’s research found that humanitarian entrants’ experiences in

the labour market converge, over time, towards those experienced by the

Australian-born population.

They catch up.

“Sacrifice” is one of the key themes Professor Hugo noted in his research.

New humanitarian migrants work hard in low-skill jobs so as to provide their children

with a chance to succeed in Australia, valuing their children’s education highly.

Again, this is something I’ve absorbed at very close quarters for many years.

This has resulted in a higher proportion of first and second generation 15-24 year

old humanitarian entrants attending education institutions than the Australian


At the same time, and very interestingly, humanitarian entrants also show a

greater propensity towards entrepreneurial enterprises, setting up their own

businesses to a greater extent than other migrant groups.

As an example, three of the top five positions in last year’s BRW Rich 200 list, were

occupied by people who either came to Australia as refugees or are the children of


But it is not just economically that humanitarian entrants make an important

contribution to Australia’s social and civic life.


Professor Hugo’s research found that humanitarian entrants volunteer

extensively, both in their local communities and more broadly; a contribution that

largely goes unnoticed and unquantified in official statistics.

Professor Hugo’s research shows us that a resilient spirit and a desire to succeed are

common characteristics of humanitarian entrants.

I commend this piece of research to you all today.

I truly hope that Professor Hugo’s work will go a long way to dispelling some myths

and misconceptions, and contribute to a more informed conversation about

Australia’s humanitarian entrants.

I do not pretend for one second that all is always rosy for every humanitarian

entrant to Australia and that, over time, we can’t further improve our settlement

services. This is something I’m interested in doing. Professor Hugo’s research helps

put those challenges and areas of improvement very much in context.

Regional Cooperation Framework

Of course, it is for these reasons I think Australia can afford to resettle more

refugees, and that is what I see as one of the significant benefits of the bilateral

arrangement entered into by Australia and Malaysia.


It would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to talk about that agreement

and our progress in progressing initiatives under the Regional Cooperation


The Regional Cooperation Framework was endorsed at the Fourth Bali Process

Ministerial Conference in March.

This was a significant achievement.

The Bali Process brings together 43 member countries - from Jordan to New

Zealand. It includes source, transit and destination countries, as well as key

international organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for

Refugees and the International Organization for Migration.

And the Bali meeting’s decision to implement a regional framework was a very

significant step forward.

The framework, ministers agreed, will be implemented through practical

arrangements and will contribute to a sustainable regional approach.

This was an important milestone towards enhancing the protection in the Asia-Pacific

region and a huge step forward in terms of regional recognition of a problem that,

despite what some people may argue, does not begin and end with Australia.

In our region, several countries host asylum seekers and refugees. In some cases in

excess of 100,000.


Although these countries - like Thailand and Malaysia - may not be parties to the

Refugees Convention, it is important that we work with these nations to assist with

their very considerable caseloads of asylum seekers; that we work with those

nations and the UNHCR to develop protection outcomes.

Some people take the view that asylum seekers are only Australia’s problem when

they set foot on Christmas Island.

If we are truly engaging in a regional solution, that means considering what we can

further do to resettle more asylum seekers from our region. It means broadening

the conversation from just those who arrive at Christmas Island to how we can

remove the incentive for irregular movement by more consistent approaches across

our region.

Imagine for a moment that someone suggested an arrangement that meant that:

(1) Australia would resettle more refugees;

(2) we could engage with partners like the UNHCR on more consistent

outcomes for asylum seekers across the region; and

(3) we could provide a significant disincentive for people making the

dangerous journey by boat.

Intuitively, you would think such an agreement would achieve significant support.

And that is exactly what this arrangement achieves.


It is important that we ensure that people who travel to Australia by boat are treated

in line with our international obligations and that they be treated with dignity and


But this debate should not just be about those who have the money and inclination

to make the journey to Australia by boat.

There are two groups of forgotten people in this debate.

Firstly, there are those who wait for resettlement. Who do not have the money or

inclination to pay a people smuggler.

One good thing about the media coverage of recent weeks is that it has, I think,

increased the sensitisation of the Australian people to the difficult situation of asylum

seekers throughout our region and throughout the world, and perhaps helped me in

arguing the case that we can and should increase our humanitarian intake.

The second group of forgotten people in this debate are those who have lost their

lives on the journey to Australia.

The consequence of people having a greater chance of resettlement if they come to

Australia by boat can, unfortunately, be the kind of tragedy we saw last December

at Christmas Island, where a boat smashed against the rocks and up to 50 men,

women and children lost their lives. Some are yet to be found.

This isn’t the first such tragedy. The SIEV X sank on its way from Indonesia to

Australia in stormy seas in October 2001. An estimated 353 people drowned.

Inevitably, there have been other deaths that we are not aware of.


Similar tragedies have taken place all over the world in similar circumstances.

Around 200 people died attempting to travel from Libya to the Italian island of

Lampedusa in April this year, followed by another up to 250 more deaths of people

following the same route earlier this month. In total, more than 1,000 people have

died on boats between Libya and Italy in 2011 alone.

And yet there are people who continue to profit from others’ desperation.

According to some estimates, the business of people smuggling and human

trafficking is now the third largest criminal activity globally after the trafficking of

drugs and weapons, worth somewhere between $7-12 billion a year.

Now, of course, while our plan to break the people smugglers’ business model

involves transferring people who arrive by boat to Malaysia, we recognise that it is

very important that appropriate care and protection be in place for those who are

transferred. And those protections are being built into the operational arrangements

that underpin the agreement.

People transferred from Australia to Malaysia will be transferred by agreement

between governments.

So, it stands to reason, in line with the commitment entered into by the Prime

Ministers, that transferees will not be prosecuted for illegal immigration. They will

not be caned. And they will not be refouled.


There will be a role for non-governmental organisations who wish to be involved in

making this agreement work through an advisory body, together with

representatives of both the Malaysian and Australian Governments.

Of course, it is particularly important specific care and protections are in place for

vulnerable cases, most particularly children.

Blanket exemptions from transfer would provide a marketing tool for people

smugglers and not be in the best interests of any child.

What is important is that we work with UNH CR to make sure that no decision is

taken to transfer a minor until that person’s personal circumstances are taken into

account and that all the necessary care and protection is in place, whether that be in

Australia or Malaysia.

And that is exactly what we are doing.

In relation to children, this function also provides me with an opportunity to update

you on a project that is very important to me: the transfer of children from detention

facilities into the community.

Moving Children out of Detention

I am pleased to be able to tell you that the government is on track to meet our

commitment to move the majority of children from immigration detention into

community-based accommodation by the end of June.


Since the Prime Minister and I announced the expansion of community detention

late last year, significant numbers of children and families have been progressively

moved from immigration detention facilities into community-based accommodation.

As of Wednesday, I have approved 1309 people for community detention since the

government’s announcement in October. Of these, 678 are children.

Nearly 1000 people have already been moved out of detention facilities into

residential arrangements, of whom 249 have since gone on to receive visas.

We currently have over 700 people living in community detention, including 334


A further 352 people - including 195 children - will be moved into the community in

coming days. This will bring the total number of people living in the community

under these arrangements to 1059.

To date, people have primarily been placed in suburbs and communities in major

capital cities.

A comprehensive and care plan is prepared for every person placed in the

community detention program. This plan defines appropriate services and support

arrangements for each individual or family.

Sourcing appropriate housing and ensuring suitable care and services exist,

particularly for unaccompanied minors, is an essential element of moving people out

of detention.


This takes a great deal of organisation and requires a the methodical approach that

we have taken to making it happen.

There is a need to recognise the amount of work that goes into moving children out

of detention and providing them with the support they require, particularly in

relation to those who have had traumatic experiences to get here.

The rapid expansion of the program to date has benefited from the successful

partnership between the Government and non-government agencies.

The Australian Red Cross is the lead agency for the implementation of these

expanded community detention arrangements. The Red Cross has drawn, and

continues to draw, on the expertise of a wide range of experienced service providers

in the community, faith-based and welfare sectors to source accommodation, care,

case workers and other services.

A Residence Determination Reference Group also meets regularly to discuss issues

with the expanded community detention arrangements.

This includes representatives of:

• faith-based, not-for-profit and welfare agencies;

• Australian Red Cross;

• Life Without Barriers;

• members of my Ministerial Council for Immigration Services and Status

Resolution (CISSR);

• senior departmental officers; and


• a representative of the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services

and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA).

I want to use this opportunity to thank the various agencies and bodies for their

engagement because it has been a very ambitious task to find the accommodation,

to find the carers for unaccompanied minors, and move so many children and

families into community-based accommodation.

My Department has, meanwhile, established an efficient process to identify eligible

individuals or groups with a view to moving them into community-based


This will continue beyond 30 June as we place more unaccompanied minors and

families into the community.


Let me wrap up today by thanking the organisers of this conference for inviting me

to be here.

This year marks several important anniversaries, not least the 60th anniversary of the

Refugees Convention.

Australia has had a longstanding involvement with UNHCR and was a founding

member of the UNHCR Executive Committee in 1958 and also of its predecessor the

UNHCR Advisory Committee in 1951.


In 2010, Australia provided UNHCR with over $50 million in funding.

We have many shared interests with UNHCR in wanting to strengthen protection and

we cooperate closely on:

• resettlement needs;

• the delivery of humanitarian assistance; and

• the development of a stronger protection environment in the Asia-Pacific.

This year’s anniversary provides the international community with an important

opportunity to reaffirm and strengthen the founding principles and values of the

international protection regime.

We support the UNHCR’s themes for the commemorations and my department is

currently developing specific pledges that are action-oriented and linked to the goals

of the commemorations.

We are also actively involved in preparations for the ministerial conference to be

held in December this year, which I hope to attend personally.

In this, the 60th anniversary of the Refugees Convention, Professor Hugo’s report

provides a clear demonstration of the significant contribution the refugees have

made to this country in that time.

With an additional 1,000 refugees arriving in Australia annually from July, we look

forward to welcoming the next generation of refugee success stories.

Thank you.