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Asylum Seekers

I spoke in parliament twice yesterday about asylum seekers, and the importance of reducing drownings at sea and treating refugees with dignity.

Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures), 27 November 2012

The issue of migration and of refugees is one that is particularly close to my heart. I spoke in my first speech in this place about my mother’s parents, a boilermaker and a teacher, who lived by the credo that if there was a spare room in the house it ought to be used by someone who needed the space. I remember as a little kid, eating at my grandparents’ place and spending time speaking to migrants, some of them refugees—from Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, Chile, Cambodia and Sri Lanka.

I also told a story that still brings a lump to my throat about an art competition run as part of Refugee Week, where the first prize went to a Karen Burmese woman who had woven a traditional crimson tunic. She was missing her homeland so much that she had made a loom by taking the mattress of the wooden bed base and using the slats as a loom to weave a traditional Karen tunic. That story for me sums up the extraordinary courage and ability of Australia’s refugees. It is why you will never hear me referring to refugees as ‘illegals’. It is why you will never hear me using phrases like ‘boatpeople’.

It was of course Australia’s own Doc Evatt who was a key drafter of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which says in Article 14(1): ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.’ And that is why there is nothing illegal about seeking asylum from persecution.

But what we have to do in this place is to find a set of policies that will end the sheer horror of drownings at sea. There have been over 1,000 drownings of asylum-seekers at sea over recent years. What that has meant is that, on the best estimates I have seen, about four per cent of those who have tried to get to Australia by boat have drowned doing so. It is a death rate which must give pause to anyone who simply says, ‘Let everyone come.’ There is nothing humane about a policy that says if you can take a leaky boat and make it to the shores of Australia you get to stay here as a refugee. To me that is a fundamentally inhumane policy.

We have got into this situation, in part, because of changes in technology. If you go back 20 years, you needed a somewhat more experienced sailor in charge of a fishing vessel to have a chance of making it from Indonesia to Christmas Island. The GPS has changed that. With a GPS device you can actually put a 15-year-old kid in charge of a fishing boat and he has a reasonable chance of making it to Christmas Island. It has meant that more people have attempted the dangerous journey and it has meant we have seen more drownings at sea. That in turn has meant, as the member for Chifley said, that we need to rethink our policies. Like him, I see no shame in that. The greatest shame is to pursue a set of policies that are ineffective; you need to adopt policies that will stop drownings at sea. It is the old Keynes line: ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?’

It is those stories of drownings which have seared themselves into my consciousness. The late, great Senator Peter Cook chaired the SIEV X inquiry, an inquiry that was looking into an incident where at least 70 children drowned; at least 200 adults lost their lives. The member for Chifley, although he did not mention it in his speech, was one of those who were on the parliamentary inquiry that investigated the Christmas Island disaster, a disaster after which 30 bodies were recovered, including four juveniles and four infants. Another 20 were missing, presumed dead. There have been others. Some of the worst of those were where vessels were simply lost at sea, where everyone on those vessels perished.

Like the member for Chifley, I believe that the most effective way of reducing the flow of unseaworthy vessels, and the risk to those aboard them, was the Malaysia agreement. The Malaysia agreement was one which, as the Houston panel noted, was ‘vitally important’. I still support that agreement. I still hope for the day that those in the opposition will support an arrangement that would provide the clearest possible message to those considering getting onto leaky boats: don’t do it, because you will be returned to one of the largest asylum-seeker camps in our region.

The ‘no-advantage principle’, the rock on which the Houston report is grounded, is a clear principle but it is more difficult to implement through measures available to us through the use of Nauru and Manus islands and bridging visas in Australia. Far more effective would be an agreement with Malaysia.

One of the chief arguments raised against returning refugees to Malaysia is that Malaysia is not a signatory to the refugee convention. That is an issue raised by those opposite. It is also an issue that is frequently raised with me by local Labor Party branch members. I had to smile when the member for Cowan suggested that somehow my speaking in this debate was a way of securing my preselection, because I can promise you there is deep disquiet among many of my branch members on this issue. The argument I would make to them and that I would make today to the House is that we must see the refugee convention in its historical light. We must recognise the way in which that document was drafted and we have to recognise that some of the aspects of the refugee convention are difficult. Indeed, the member for Cook himself said that the refugee convention ‘no longer reflects the practical reality’. It is a document which was drafted to deal with the flow of refugees in the aftermath of World War II.

The result is that we now have three groups of countries in the world when it comes to the refugee convention. We have developed countries with the ability to patrol their borders who are happy to sign the refugee convention. We have developing nations which receive few asylum seekers—for instance, Somalia or Iran—and are willing to sign. But there is a third set of countries—such as India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia—who are reluctant to sign. These are countries situated close to refugee sending nations who recognise that, were they to sign up to the refugee convention, they would be obligated to take, house and resettle all of the refugees with genuine claims who came over their borders. That is simply impractical for some of these countries to do. Pakistan, as of the end of last year, had 1.7 million refugees. For these developing countries the cost of processing asylum seeker claims, let alone the cost of meeting education, health and housing obligations, would be prohibitive. The cost is what prevents them from signing the refugee convention.

You do not have to take my word for it. In April 2007 the Malaysian foreign ministry’s parliamentary secretary told the news outlet Malaysiakini that it would not officially recognise refugees since ‘the government is of the opinion that if Malaysia becomes party to the convention, considering its strategic geographical location in the region, it would be a drawing factor for refugees to come to Malaysia’. It is for that set of reasons that the Malaysian government has not signed the refugee convention. Malaysia is a party to many international agreements. The reputation of the Malaysian government has been done a deep disservice by those on the other side of the House in the context of the asylum seeker debate.

It strikes me that there is little consistency in the coalition’s opposition to the Malaysia agreement based on Malaysia not having signed the refugee convention. The Howard government used Nauru to process asylum seekers at a time when Nauru was not a signatory to the refugee convention. The opposition would have boats turned back to Indonesia, a country which has not signed the refugee convention. I think what is demanded of all of us in this debate is a practical approach which recognises the reality of asylum seeker flows. GPS technology means younger and younger skippers are crewing boats. We need to work with non-signatory countries. Rather than being bound to a policy which has more people drowning at, we need to recognise the geopolitical realities as to why the Malaysian government does not sign the refugee convention.

The government is committed to implementing the recommendations of the Houston report. Those recommendations include working through a managed regional system. That approach is grounded in the Bali process, of which Australia is a core part and recognises that, around the world, there are around 42 million internally displaced people and asylum seekers—nearly twice the population of Australia. It is never going to be possible for Australia to resettle all of those who would like to seek asylum in Australia. Our best contribution will come in working regionally and finding approaches which have a reasonable sharing of the burden across countries which are willing to settle refugees. That is a classic role Australia has played—a middle power diplomacy working cooperatively with countries in our region. I commend the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister for their work in the East Asia Summit and their constant advocacy of good policy in the region and cooperative policy with those around us.

When I last spoke in this debate I said that I hoped the refugee intake would one day be increased to 20,000. I am now pleased to be able to welcome that increase to 20,000 places which has occurred through the Houston report. I believe that Australia can, and should be able to, settle more refugees. I am very proud of the organisations in my own electorate of Fraser who do such good work with refugees. They are committed to rolling out the welcome mat to people who have been assessed as genuine refugees and helping them become a strong part of the Canberra community.

In closing, I would also like to acknowledge Sarah Staege, a temporary migrant to Australia, who is in the gallery today with three of her colleagues. This indicates the benefits of migration to Australia.

Matter of Public Importance – Asylum Seekers, 27 November 2012

On 18 October 2001 an Indonesian fishing boat left the port of Bandar Lampung. There were 421 people on board, including at least 70 children. The boat was 20 metres long and four metres wide, so people were tightly packed on board. The next day, about 70 kilometres south of Indonesia, the boat encountered heavy seas, took on water, listed violently to one side, capsized and sank within an hour. There were life jackets on board, but none of them worked. As a Senate committee chaired by the late, great, Senator Peter Cook concluded, there were at least 70 children aboard when SIEV X sank. Only three survived. Two hundred adults also lost their lives. This was the precursor to many more deaths at sea over the next decade.

We are where we are today because Australia, as an island continent, is a dangerous place to journey to. We are where we are today because the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is a document largely drafted in the aftermath of World War II to deal with what weree by today’s standards relatively moderate asylum seeker flows across land. We are where we are today because Australia faces a unique challenge. Four per cent of those who take boats to get to Australia perish on the seas attempting to do so, so our policies need to be targeted at stopping those deaths at sea.

There are those in both houses who have served on the SIEV X inquiry, and there are other parliamentarians who have served on the Christmas Island inquiry. We have just heard the Minister for Justice speaking movingly about some of the more recent tragedies that have occurred. I believe that in this debate there is no compassion in a policy which says that, if you can take a leaky boat to Australia and make it, then you can stay. I do not think that that policy is a compassionate one. I do not think that that policy is one which aligns with the value of the Labor Party, a party that I am privileged to represent in this place.

What we have done through putting the Malaysian agreement before this parliament—an agreement rejected by an alliance of those to the left and to the right of us—has been to try and ensure that we do not create incentives for people to make the dangerous boat journey here. That Malaysian agreement was struck down by the High Court and legislation to enable it was unable to pass through this parliament. We then found ourselves in a position where a productive exchange of letters over the Christmas break last year between the opposition immigration spokesperson and the government immigration spokesperson was stymied when the Leader of the Opposition became involved. It became almost absurd. The member for Cook was asked at one point: ‘If the government were to adopt all of your policies, would you support them?’ and he could not even say yes to that. So, as an attempted circuit breaker, this government asked three distinguished Australians—Angus Houston, Michael L’Estrange and Paris Aristotle—to come up with a report which would look at how we could prevent those tragic drownings at sea. When the Houston report came down, the government immediately announced we would follow its recommendations. All we have unfortunately seen from those opposite is an attempt to try to play politics with one of the most difficult issues in Australian public life.

There are three facts that I do not think have received significant discussion in public commentary on this issue. First, the humanitarian intake in Australia has been increased by 45 per cent to 20,000 places. I called for that in a speech at the end of last year and was extremely pleased when it was adopted. That is 45 per cent more people who are able to enjoy the high-quality humanitarian settlement process in Australia. Subject to economic circumstances, that will be increased to 27,000 places in the next five years. That cements Australia’s position as the leading resettlement country globally on a per capita basis, according to United Nations data.

Secondly, Australia has been a world leader in how we provide those settlement services. I am enormously proud of the charities—some of them religious, some of them not—in my electorate of Fraser who work hard with newly arrived refugees. In some cases this will be a young Afghan boy who has lost his parents or whose parents have not joined him here and who is struggling to learn English and fit into the local community.

Canberrans have accepted refugees from Sudan, and many of them are making a great contribution to our city. In fact, I was pleased to start the day playing a game of basketball outside Parliament House with the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, the member for Chifley, Senator Lundy and a range of parliamentary staff. We were playing against the Big Bang Ballers—a phrase not best said 10 times quickly—a group run by Pierre Johannessen in Canberra. Pierre works with at-risk youth playing Saturday night basketball. Many of the youth who join in are migrant youth or refugee youth. The Sudanese blokes on the other team certainly ran rings around me. But it is testament to the Canberra community that we are able to work on that resettlement so well.

Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told 7.30 on 13 February this year:

‘Australia has received 750,000 refugees until now. Australia’s one of the most successful, if not the most successful resettlement program in the world with a large number of people being successfully integrated in the Australian society.’

We provide English language support, case management, torture and trauma counselling, funding for migrant resource centres, and cultural orientation programs.

The third thing that you do not hear often in this debate is that the average length of time spent by asylum seekers in detention facilities has decreased. It decreased from 277 days in November 2011 to 93 days in June 2012. The government is reducing the amount of time that people spend in detention.

In re-opening the Nauru and Manus Island facilities, we are also providing external scrutiny, something that never existed when the Howard government was in power. Amnesty International has recently brought down a critical report on the Nauru detention centre. The government does not agree with all of the findings in that report. But it is important to note that that report would not have been possible under the Howard government. Next week I understand the member for Cook is travelling to Nauru—again, something that would not have been possible under the Howard government.

That internal scrutiny is important to me as somebody who believes that it is important to deter people from making a dangerous boat journey, but we must also treat those who make that journey with dignity and compassion. You will not hear me, as the member for Cook and the member for Stirling said, describing as illegals those who come as asylum seekers. It is not illegal to seek refuge in another country. You also will not hear me attempting to have it both ways on the refugee convention.

In speaking on the Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill 2012 shortly before question time, I discussed some of the circumstances that determine why a country signs or does not sign the refugee convention. I find it passing strange that the opposition is willing to turn boats back to Indonesia, a dangerous attempt which could endanger not only the lives of asylum seekers but also naval personnel, and also something which is odd given that Indonesia is a non-signatory country. We believe that it is important to recognise that circumstances have changed since the refugee convention was signed and to find an approach that is humane and compassionate.

One Comment

  1. Allan Jackson says:

    Congratulations on an excellent speech. It met a high standard in humanity. Being a ‘let them all come’ subscriber, this speech has changed my mind. However, I have always seen the wisdom of the Malaysian solution to avoid deaths at sea. I’d be interested in the views of Andrew’s electorate members. I would hope that the abhorrent right wing approach is not endorsed by them. The federal parliament is richer for members with the calibre, humanity and intelligence of Andrew Leigh.