Yesterday, in the Senate, Asylum Seekers took centre stage.
Christine Milne, leader of the Greens, and target of so much vitriol from Left and Right spoke. (Although PM Gillard in a press conference yesterday afternoon clearly positioned any possible blame where it belonged “I think you’ve misunderstood the Senate numbers, the biggest single block is was Mr Abbott’s team” Ms Gillard said.)
Here is part of what was said, edited for clarity:
Senator MILNE (Tasmania—Leader of the Australian Greens) (12:25):
I rise today to speak on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. This is a political solution; it is not a solution for asylum seekers and refugees.
Everything has become part of the 30-second grab. Everything has been along the lines of, ‘Let’s just say the legislation will save lives, and not test it against any evidence base, and then say that if you don’t support that legislation then in some way you don’t support saving lives.’
Let me tell you what this legislation has actually done. The government tried to establish a Malaysia solution. That Malaysia solution was that they would take people from boats and send them offshore to a country that has not signed the refugee convention and where they were not going to be protected. These are vulnerable people who have done nothing wrong. They had tried to come to Australia to exercise their right to asylum. That is a perfectly legal thing to do around the world.
Australia was going to do that, and as a result it went to the High Court. The High Court struck down that legislation as being against our own law—against our own Migration Act 1958. The court said that you cannot validly declare a country to which asylum seekers are taken for processing unless that country is legally bound by international law or its own domestic law to (1) provide access for asylum seekers to effective procedures for assessing their need of protection, (2) provide protection for asylum seekers pending determination of their refugee status, (3) provide protection for persons given refugee status pending their voluntary return to their country or their resettlement in another country and (4) meet certain human rights standards in providing that protection. The court held that Malaysia is not legally bound to provide the access and protections that the Migration Act requires for a valid declaration, that Malaysia is not a party to the refugee convention or its protocol. The arrangements that the minister signed expressly said that it was not legally binding—that Malaysia was not legally bound to and does not recognise the status of refugees in domestic law. And that is why it was struck down.
So the government then tried to remove those provisions from the Migration Act so that it could proceed. That is precisely what Mr Oakeshott has done in this bill. He has removed from asylum seekers any protections. Even worse, the bill does not even specify Malaysia. People out there are thinking, ‘This bill must specify Malaysia.’ It does not. What it does is say that the minister here can send people to any country which is a signatory of the Bali process, and the countries that are signatories to the Bali process include Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Syria. When people go around with this 30-second grab of ‘This legislation saves lives,’ what they are saying is: ‘This legislation takes away all of those protections of their human rights and says that an Australian minister can send those people to countries outside the refugee convention in which there is no legal protection.’ Any one of those countries will and could do. That is what this legislation is doing. Anyone who deludes themselves into thinking that it provides any kind of safety for an asylum seeker is wrong.
Let’s separate out the issues. Everybody is devastated by the tragedy of people losing their lives at sea. This is something which has worried me for many, many years and it goes back especially to the SIEVX. I would remind this chamber that the SIEVX, where 353 people drowned, sank after the Pacific solution was introduced by the former Prime Minister John Howard. It sank after the mean-spirited temporary protection visas were introduced. Why were there so many women and children on board the SIEVX? Because they were told that they could never get family reunion in Australia because of the TPVs and, as a result, the only way they could come here was on those boats. That is why the women and children were on the SIEVX—after temporary protection visas, after the Pacific solution, after billions of dollars was wasted in punitive action against some of the world’s most vulnerable people. If those billions that were wasted on the Pacific solution had been put into supporting the implementation of United Nations refugee convention in the region, we would have had a regional solution a very long time ago.
I pushed for a royal commission into the SIEVX and, when Labor came into government, I asked for a royal commission. Where is it, because it was Labor policy? I found that in 2007 it disappeared from the Labor platform, and that was the end of any royal commission into the SIEVX. I asked why. ‘Well, it just did; it was removed from the Labor platform.’ The reason it is relevant here today is this. I have been to the memorial services and talked to some of the survivors. They have said that they were in the water and boats came and there were lights on them in the water. They started swimming towards those boats and they thought they were safe. Then the lights went off and the boats left and people drowned. I have always wanted to know, from that day to this, whether Australia’s intelligence services—and we have many of those in Northern Australia—were tracking that boat and knew where it was. Why were people in the water and not being rescued if we knew where they were? What was going on there? No-one has ever answered those questions. That is why to me codifying the provisions of the safety of life at sea convention is absolutely critical.
In the Senate’s A certain maritime incident report it was recognised that we needed to codify that, because there is a tension between a policy of deterrence—we want to send these boats back; we do not want these people; therefore we will not be rescuing them until the very last minute—and our obligations under the safety of life at sea convention. We need to codify those obligations, because all the waters around Christmas Island are international waters, but they are in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone. But Indonesia has said, ‘We don’t have the capacity to rescue people in these waters.’ They said this week that they have one boat which cannot go to sea in a swell of four metres. They cannot rescue people. But we are saying: ‘We know that boat is in the water. Today is Tuesday. We have contacted the Indonesians and told them the boat is there and it has said it’s in distress.’ On Thursday, when people were in the water, we had aircraft overhead and we knew what was going on. It was on Thursday that we informed the Indonesians that we were taking over that rescue operation. That is when we went in and started pulling people out of the water. Why is it that, when we know a boat is in trouble, we do not proactively go and save people and not wait for them to be in the water? Why? That is why I have said very clearly that we need to codify. We need to make sure we are on track with this.
Equally, we have in Indonesia, right now, about 8,000 people in camps and many thousands more in Malaysia. We in Australia take 60 people—60 people combined between Indonesia and Malaysia. So, if you turn up now at a camp in Indonesia or Malaysia, you will have a 76-year wait to come to Australia or to be resettled. On that basis, if you are there, are you not going to be vulnerable to people who come up and say to you, ‘Well, you’re going to be waiting a lifetime, if ever, so what about my boat?’ The way to deal with it is to increase our funding to the UNHCR in Indonesia, so that not only can it work on assessing the refugee claims faster but secondly it can start educating people in the camps about how the convention works—what the processes are, what the safe pathway is—so people have a much better understanding. That is why we need to increase our refugee intake and do that immediately. If we start taking people out of those camps into Australia right now, people are going to see that there is a safe pathway to Australia and they will see that they do not need to be so desperately taking these highly risky journeys at sea. But you would only be doing that if you actually genuinely wanted to support asylum seekers. That is why we say that that is the action to take if there is a genuine commitment across the parliament to support asylum seekers in the region.
In the last year there has been a 20 per cent increase globally in people seeking asylum—so it is not about whether Australia’s policy has failed or not failed; there has been a 20 per cent increase. And let’s look at the push factors. People are not leaving Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka for no reason at all. They are leaving there because they are displaced, because they are being persecuted. I heard a report on the news just yesterday of people in Pakistan being pulled off buses and being shot there by the side of the road. They are the people who are trying to get away from that level of persecution. So there has been a 20 per cent increase in people seeking asylum worldwide but only a nine per cent increase in Australia. Our policies are already a deterrent, if you like, in the context of the global refugee intake. In fact, the Americans look at us and say: ‘What on earth are you talking about? We deal with that virtually every weekend.’
So the issue here for us is to say to ourselves, as one of the richest countries on earth: why can’t we use our leadership role in the region to genuinely lead, to uphold the refugee convention, to support the UNHCR in the region and to give leadership to those other countries to sign up to the convention, which will then enable us to work on a genuine regional solution? The situation is going to continue and will get worse this century because of climate change and extreme weather events. We are already seeing people displaced around the world because of that, and I have to say it is to my shame that Australia in the United Nations has been blocking a definition of an environmental refugee for this very reason—because we anticipate, we know, how many will be coming from the Pacific and Bangladesh and other places because of climate change into the future.
If we are serious, there are things we can do, and those things are outlined in the amendment that the Greens are going to move today. I would implore both the government and the coalition to support this amendment, because these are things that can be done today—not next week, not in three months but today. They are, firstly, to provide safe pathways for refugees to discourage people from taking life-threatening journeys; and, secondly, to increase Australia’s humanitarian intake from 13,750 to 20,000, including additional places to be immediately allocated to targeted resettlement of 1,000 people from Indonesia and 4,000 people from Malaysia. They are decisions that you could sign off today. The Prime Minister could do that without the parliament. She could actually go and sign off on that today.
Further, we could immediately increase funding to the UNHCR by $10 million to boost the capacity of refugee status determination assessments in Malaysia and Indonesia. We could then enter into urgent discussions between Australia and Indonesia to address the critical need for cooperation and effectiveness of intelligence sharing and resourcing between Australia and Indonesia in order to save lives at sea. I welcome the fact that the coalition have said today that they would be prepared to see more patrol boats go into the area so that we might anticipate some of the problems and be more prompt and able to rescue, but again it goes to this issue of whether we anticipate or whether we wait until people are in the water. We want to codify the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea obligations across all relevant government agencies.
In terms of a framework for a long-term regional solution, underpinned by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the related 1967 protocol, we should establish a multiparty committee at the highest level, convened by the Prime Minister in the context of the convention and with experts around the table in international law, in refugee matters, to make sure that we come up with something which will not be struck down by the courts, which will provide leadership in the region and which would give confidence to other countries in the region that we are genuine about our responsibilities and our willingness to play our fair-share role in this context. What we are saying at the moment is that we are a rich country and we will not take on our fair share. We expect everybody else to deal with it—out of sight, out of mind; send the people somewhere else away from us. It will turn down the political heat and it will look as if we have done something when, in fact, we have done nothing other than strip from vulnerable people arriving on boats the very basic protections of human rights. That is something that there is no way anybody who really thinks about this as a matter of conscience could ever support.
A lot of the things that I have listed in this set of actions today are things that Tony Abbott, the leader of the coalition, said yesterday that he would support. He said he would support an increase in the humanitarian intake. He said he would support additional funding going to the UNHCR. He said he would support a multiparty committee. Today, as I indicated, he said they would send more boats to the area. I have yet to have a discussion about codification, but that is another area. We want to negotiate with both the coalition and the government because that means we could leave this parliament today with a phone call to Indonesia already having taken place, with a phone call to the UNHCR already having taken place, with 1,000 people in Indonesia and 4,000 in Malaysia being told in the next 24 hours that they would be leaving the camps. They are the things that will deter people from risking their lives on boats trying to get to Australia, because they are doing that out of desperation.
If you think desperate people will not continue to take desperate actions, think again. When this Malaysia solution was on the table previously, a boat tried to bypass Australia and go to New Zealand—an even more hazardous journey. Unless you reduce the number of people in the camps and reduce the number of years they have to wait to think they are ever going to be given an opportunity for resettlement, you are not going to take the pressure off people feeling that they have to take this desperate action.
I have written to the Prime Minister and I am writing a letter to the leader of the coalition, Mr Abbott, as well, asking whether they would agree today to take these actions, and then we can sit down and work out something in the longer term. Let’s take the actions that we can all agree on that are immediate, that go to the issue of safety of life at sea. That is critical. There has been a heartfelt outpouring from across the country, with people saying, ‘Don’t let any more people drown,’ and I could not agree more. The best way of ensuring that is to get people to the place, to rescue them and take people out of the camps so that they do not feel the pressure to get on the boats in the first place
BILLS Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012 Second Reading