Migration Amendments

I spoke today on the government's amendments to the Migration Act.
Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing)
22 September 2011

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 just 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 the 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. As the International Organisation for Migration pointed out, the tragedy was due to 'the way the people smugglers pack these boats'.

Nine years later, on 15 December 2010, a boat carrying around 90 asylum seekers sank off the coast of Christmas Island. Thirty bodies were recovered, including those of four juveniles and four infants. Up to 20 others are missing, presumed dead. The report of the Joint Select Committee on the Christmas Island Tragedy quoted Raymond Murray, the first person to arrive at the scene. He told the committee:

'Standing right out on the edge of the rocks, there were times when that the boat was closer than you are to me now. I will never forget seeing a woman holding up a baby, obviously wanting me to take it, and not being able to do anything. It was just a feeling of absolute hopelessness. It was like it was happening in slow motion. A wave would pick the boat up and almost hit the rocks and then go back again, and then finally it was like it exploded.'

Over the past decade or so there have been 414 confirmed drownings by asylum seekers at sea. For example, apart from those I have mentioned, five were drowned on 16 April 2009, 12 on 1 November 2009 and 12 on 15 June 2010.

Apart from this, there have been over 500 more unconfirmed deaths by asylum seekers at sea. There were reports of a vessel carrying 200 people that disappeared in March 2000. There were reports of another vessel carrying 100 people, that disappeared—presumably with the loss of everyone on board—in October 2009. We will never know how many asylum seekers have died at sea in attempting to reach Australia, but we do know that those people certainly number in their hundreds and perhaps in their thousands.

Quite often the asylum seeker debate focuses on people who arrive by boat, but that is only a portion of the refugees we take. We also take refugees from offshore processing, people who in many cases have spent years in refugee camps. The more onshore arrivals we take the fewer offshore arrivals we take.

To provide a more complete picture, I want to say something about the refugees that are resettled from these offshore camps. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship has a vast network of offices, which work in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to process refugees. Our offices include those in Amman, Beijing, Cairo, Moscow and Warsaw. Once recognised as a refugee by the UNHCR a person is referred to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship for resettlement.

Australia is unusual in this. We are one of only about 20 nations worldwide that participate formally in the UNHCR's resettlement program and accept quotas of refugees on an annual basis. For the last year for which I was able to obtain statistics, Australia had the third largest number of refugees for resettlement under this UNHCR program. We were outranked by the United States and Canada, but on a per capita basis we take more UNHCR refugees than either of those two countries. Of course, the numbers that we take are small. Our total humanitarian quota was 13,750 in past years, increasing now to 14,750. But that is a small share of the world's 15 million refugees, 10½ million of whom are under the UNHCR's mandate.

The world as a whole needs to do more to take in UNHCR refugees. Last year there were only 539,170 refugees recognised or resettled under the UNHCR. Of these, only 98,761 were resettled from other countries. What we need is a regional approach to a global problem. This approach began through the Bali meeting in March, bringing together countries in our region to discuss the challenge of refugees. Labor's approach has always been one of multilateralism. That is as true for immigration as it is for trade and foreign policy. The coalition, on the other hand, have a tendency to focus on unilateralism, striking particular deals with single countries. They do it in trade and they do it in migration. We believe it is the wrong approach. Modern Labor's approach will always be a multilateralist one.

Yet while I am proud of modern Labor's multilateralist approach on refugees, it is important to also acknowledge my party's history. That history has not always been a great one.

We were a party formed to protect the rights of Australian workers, and, partly for that reason, there were Labor representatives in this place who played a shameful role in restricting the intake of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Europe in the 1930s. They did so because of a mix of anti-Semitism and anti-capitalist radicalism. Labor Senator John Armstrong in 1938 said:

'I urge the Government to take steps to prevent the unrestricted immigration of Jews to this country …'

This meant that Australia took only 5,000 Jewish refugees before the outbreak of war. Later, under the White Australia Policy, Labor immigration minister Arthur Calwell was shocked when the High Court ruled that he could not deport an Indonesian woman who had six children with her Australian husband. Calwell thought it was right that that family be torn apart.

But Labor's role is fundamentally a proud one. In 1945, at the San Francisco conference to establish the United Nations, Jessie Street—the only woman on the Australian delegation—argued for the removal of restrictions on Jewish migration and for an increased intake of Jewish refugees to Australia. In 1948, as the fourth President of the UN General Assembly, HV 'Doc' Evatt was a key drafter of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that says, in article 14(1):

'Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.'

This set the foundation for the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which was originally to address the problem of the millions of Europeans displaced by World War II and was then updated in 1967 to apply to refugees generally.

Today, the issue of immigration is a proud Labor issue. In my first speech, I mentioned 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 should be used by someone who needed the space. I remember as a little kid eating in my grandparents' home with new migrants from Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, Chile, Cambodia and Sri Lanka.

Last year, I attended a prize-giving ceremony for an art competition run as part of Refugee Week. First prize went to a Karen Burmese woman who had woven a traditional crimson tunic. Because she did not have a proper loom, the woman had taken the mattress off her bed and fashioned a loom from her pine bed base. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the courage and spirit of Australia's migrants.

In referring to refugees in my first speech, I was not unusual. If there is a defining characteristic about first speeches by Labor members and senators, it is that they almost invariably include a migrant's tale.

Part of what we are doing in the agreement with Malaysia is trying to ensure better treatment for refugees currently in Malaysia. The challenging protection environment in Malaysia makes it difficult for the UNHCR to fulfil its mandate in the country. The UNHCR registers asylum seekers, determines their status claims and provides them with documentation. Our agreement will allow the UNHCR access to persons seeking asylum, including to assess their need for protection. It will strengthen the relationship between the UNHCR and Malaysia, not just for those refugees who come from the Malaysian camps to Australia but for the nearly 100,000 refugees who are in those camps. In the words of the UNHCR:

'It is UNHCR’s understanding that the Arrangement will with time deliver further protection dividends in the two countries, as well as the region …'

Lasting improvements in the region's response to asylum seekers and refugees necessarily involve countries, like Malaysia, that are not yet party to the convention. The arrangement with Malaysia is subject to oversight by committees involving representatives of the Australian and Malaysian governments, the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration.

There are no simple solutions. As the old Max Weber line goes, public policy is like 'slow boring through hard boards'. Nowhere is this truer than with migration. As the Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency Mark Dreyfus has pointed out, this is not about being compassionate; it is about 'competing compassions'.

I reject attacks on public servants in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship that we have heard in recent weeks. Public servants have a difficult task, and we should respect the long hours that they put into crafting policy. I respect the many constituents of mine who work in the Australian Public Service and I will defend their impartiality.

I also reject the claim that some have made that this is a new ‘Pacific solution’. There are two reasons this is wrong. Firstly, the Howard government's Pacific solution saw no increase in the total refugee intake. Under this policy, we are taking an additional 1,000 refugees per year. The second reason is that the Pacific solution had no involvement from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Ours has a strong involvement from that body.

As a Labor member of parliament, I believe that the neediest people should be given the first priority. In our offshore processing centres in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, working with the UNHCR, we take people who have nothing. Those who come by boat are invariably those who have enough money to pay a people smuggler. In saying this, I am not reflecting on those who come by boat. In their shoes, I might well make the same decision. But we have a fixed humanitarian quota: 13,750 now, which will increase to 14,750. I believe it is appropriate to prioritise those who are selected in our offshore processing centres.

This is a hard debate, and I have had many conversations and email exchanges with people in my electorate about what is the right thing to do. I respect those who disagree with the government's position on this. But no-one has a monopoly on compassion.

In closing, I pay tribute to those in the ACT who work with refugees, as my maternal grandparents did with refugees in their home. I want to acknowledge the work of the Multicultural Youth Services in settling young refugees, often those who are orphaned or who only have one parent. The work they do to help newly arrived migrants develop friends and social networks is valuable work indeed. I recognise Companion House, which works with the victims of torture and trauma. It is hard and important work. They provide health care and social services. I acknowledge those who work in these organisations and the many other bodies that assist refugees in the ACT. Their compassion is a great credit to them and it is one of the reasons why I hope that in the future Australia will be able to take still more refugees than we do today.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.