Refugees and Asylum Seekers - The Big Picture

I spoke in parliament yesterday in response to the opposition's latest tub-thumping on migration.
Refugees and Asylum Seekers - The Big Picture
10 May 2011

The issue of refugees and asylum seekers is a global challenge. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2009 there were 43.3 million forcibly displaced people throughout the globe and, of those, 15.2 million were refugees. These are vast numbers for the international community to deal with and there are also huge numbers around the world who are affected by the challenge of asylum seekers. Just to give you a sense of the scale of the number of internally displaced people and refugees, Mr Deputy Speaker, I want to quote a couple of statistics from a Parliamentary Library paper by Janet Phillips. She points out that, in 2006, over 72,000 people arrived by boat on the coasts of Italy, Spain, Greece and Malta alone. In 2007, that number was 51,000.

The arrival numbers in Australia are actually very small compared to global asylum seeker applications. The paper makes the point that, in 2009, Australia received 6,170 asylum seeker applications, which is just 1.6 per cent of the 377,160 applications received by the 44 industrialised nations for which the UNHCR tracks figures. Of those 44 nations, Australia was ranked 16th overall and 21st on a per capita basis. It is critical to put the numbers into perspective and to remember that Australia has a long and proud history of accepting refugees for resettlement.

Many people who have come to Australia and made vast contributions to our wellbeing—I am thinking back here to people like Frank Lowy and the many people who came to Australia at the end of the Vietnam War—have made valuable contributions to our society. Australia is better off for being a destination that has welcomed refugees into our midst. There are only about 20 developed nations that formally participate in the UNHCR refugee resettlement program and we are one of those nations. But those developed nations do not house the majority of the world's asylum seekers and refugees. The majority of the world's asylum seekers and refugees are indeed housed in developing countries with the millions of people that already live in some of these developing countries. Pakistan currently hosts approximately 1.7 million refugees, Iran hosts over a million refugees and some 115,000 asylum seekers and refugees are in Thailand. Malaysia hosts around 100,000 asylum seekers and refugees and Indonesia faces significant numbers of irregular migrants moving through its territory.

It is critical that we keep the global challenge in perspective. The Minister for Foreign Affairs said in Bali early this year that worldwide transnational crime represents a business of two-thirds of $1 trillion a year and a large portion of that is the crime of people smuggling and human trafficking. That is the challenge that Labor's policy is aiming to address. We are aiming to address the challenge even within our own region of the 3.9 million refugees amongst us. It is important to recognise that Labor's policy happens in a global environment. Those opposite would very often like us to think that Australia exists in a little bubble and that the rest of the world does not affect us. But we know that is not the case.

There are international institutions set up to deal with the challenge of refugees and asylum seekers and we are marking the 60th anniversary of the convention of the status of Australia as a refugee country by the UNHCR and the 60th anniversary of the International Organisation for Migration. These two great international institutions have played a major role and Australia is looking to work with those institutions. But beyond the statistics there is also a set of very personal stories that accompany them. I spoke in my maiden speech about my own experience with my mother's parents, a boilermaker and a teacher, who always lived by the credo that if there was a spare room in the house it should be used by someone who needed the space. As a child, I remember eating at their home with Indigenous families and new migrants from Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, Chile, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. That early experience informed my lifelong passion for Australia's multiculturalism.

Last year I attended a prize-giving ceremony for an art competition held as part of Refugee Week and first prize went to a Korean-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. That brings me to the announcement that was made on the weekend by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. It was an announcement aiming to do two things: to put people smugglers out of business, to ensure that fewer people are put on those boats, particularly women and children, to brave a dangerous and unnecessary sea journey to Australia; and it is also trying to ensure that Australia resettles more refugees than it has in the past.

As the minister has set out, the next 800 irregular maritime arrivals, who arrive in Australia after the date on which the agreement comes into effect, will be transferred to Malaysia. In return Australia will resettle an additional 4,000 refugees currently residing in Malaysia. Australia is going to fully fund that agreement and, importantly, it will be overseen by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which is playing a more active role in Malaysia than it has ever done in the past.

This increase in asylum seekers will be the largest increase in the asylum seeker-refugee intake that has occurred since Labor was last in office. That increase of 1,000 a year reflects the fact that Australia is a generous country which is able to resettle refugees. I think that bipartisan commitment to resettling refugees has in the past—alas, not so much now—been a hallmark of Australia's social fabric.

What we are doing is not a bilateral deal. It is the beginnings of a regional framework. We recognise that refugees and asylum seekers are a global challenge. We recognise the way to tackle that challenge is through a regional agreement. That is very different from the bilateral deals that we saw under the Howard government and the temporary protection visas. Temporary protection visas did not work. They were introduced in October 1999 and, following the introduction of TPVs, the number of irregular maritime arrivals spiked.

By contrast the current policy proposal that the government has put forward has been welcomed. The UNHCR's regional representative, Richard Towle, said:

'I think in that sense it has the potential to ... make a significant practical contribution to what we're trying to achieve in the region. And if it's a good experience other countries can look at it and say "yes, that's a positive way of managing these issues. Perhaps we want to embark on similar or other initiatives under a regional cooperation framework".'

He also said:

'Well the core on which I think everyone agrees on and that's ... what we call the principle of non-refoulement: that's non-expulsion of asylum seekers and refugees out of the country to face persecution. We would want to see that and I think we are seeing that as a commitment from both Governments.'

By contrast the opposition on the issue of refugees has taken the narrow and parochial road. They are the ostriches of the Australian political system. They are willing to put their head in the sand and pretend the rest of the world does not exist. We have seen this through a spate of issues.

During the global financial crisis we saw the opposition's refusal to support the stimulus and their willingness to talk now as though the GFC never happened. On climate change we saw their startling readiness to reject both the science and the economics. On migration we saw the return of Hansonism wrapped in a blue ribbon. Whereas the former member for Cook, Bruce Baird, would stand up for principle, the current member for Cook is only willing to stand up for the spreading of fear.

Migration has strengthened Australia. Refugees have strengthened Australia. What this policy seeks to do is to increase our humanitarian intake and, in an equally humanitarian way, to discourage the dangerous sea journey and to see fewer young children set adrift in leaky boats to brave a dangerous sea journey to Australia. In those twin regards this is a humanitarian policy and one that I am proud to support as a member of the Labor Party.

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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.