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Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012 Speech

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 16 Aug 2012

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (11:08):

I rise today to speak on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. I am deeply saddened that here we are yet again debating legislation which is designed to punish and demonise people merely because they arrive on our shores by boat instead of arriving by plane or waiting patiently in mythical queues in intolerable living conditions where they have no hope or a sense of the future.

The last time I spoke about this issue in this place, just six weeks ago in relation to the Bali process bill, I described the experience of just one refugee I recently met in Adelaide. In desperation he came to Australia after waiting for resettlement in the Philippines. He waited for 20 years. There was no queue. He was waiting in limbo, a no-man's-land where he could not work, he could not form relationships and he had no sense of a future, and he chose ultimately to come to Australia.

It was with deep shame that I witnessed the imposition of mandatory detention on refugees, commenced by the Keating government in the 1990s, and then the more punitive regimes inflicted on refugees and asylum seekers by the Howard government into this century. Like many other Australians, I raised my voice and took what action I could and then I celebrated the lifting of temporary protection visas and the closing of Nauru. We thought that the worst excesses of these nasty exploitative policies were finally over. Certainly we knew that there was a legacy of people who had harmed and hanged themselves, and there are many survivors from that time who went on to be granted refugee status and who live in Australia today. But they still bear the mental scars of long periods in indefinite detention-our fellow Australians. Not least, we thought, the bad old days were over. Now, here we are again in 2012 being urged to support this legislation because it represents a compromise in order to find a solution to a wicked dilemma.

It is true that there is a dilemma. People around the world will flee situations of terror, violence, torture and threat and they will try to reach a safer place like Australia and their journeys will be hazardous. But it is not surprising; it is exactly what many of us would do in the same situation if we were faced with the same horrors, if that was what was necessary for us to save our partners or our children or ourselves.

The big lie is that there is a simple solution to this dilemma-like the Pacific solution or the Malaysian solution. Pretending that there is a simple solution is misleading and cynical, because it causes false expectations in the Australian public and then leads to pressure for drastic action like what we have before us in this bill. It will appear that something decisive and effective is happening even if the consequences are ineffectual, harmful and cruel. Let us not be misled here. This is a political solution but it will not save lives or reduce suffering.

On Monday at the cross-party parliamentary meeting on asylum seekers, I had the chance to hear from some of the most experienced and compassionate advocates for refugees in Australia. These were people who have considered this issue over long periods of time and their overwhelming message was that this is a complex and intractable challenge and there is no simple solution. There are just ways to manage it in the most humane way possible while maintaining the values that motivated us in Australia in 1954 to sign up to a convention to assist some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

Now we come to this idea of a compromise. What is it I wonder that we are compromising on. Compromising is good we are told: agreeing to something we do not want for some great result. But what if it won't be effective and will cause untold harm and suffering? Where is the virtue and the sense in that? To support this legislation we must compromise on obligations that Australia voluntarily assumed when we signed the United Nations convention on refugees. They were very clear obligations to respect the rights of people to seek asylum under certain conditions and to ensure that they are treated humanely and compassionately when they do so. Here we are being asked to compromise so that we can treat some people so harshly that it will send a message of punishment and deterrence to others contemplating making the journey. We will have to treat them so harshly that it compares with the situations they are fleeing from-persecution by the Taliban, for instance, or years of statelessness in limbo with no sense of purpose and no sense of hope. Desperate people will do what is necessary.

The best deterrent to making a risky boat journey is the belief that there is another viable option, an alternative that will result in a better life. Refugees in Indonesia have indicated that they are willing to wait, sometimes two or three years, if they know they have a good chance of being resettled-if they have some hope.

The Australian Greens are serious about protecting refugees, saving lives and encouraging people not to risk their lives on boats because they have a better option-because they have a real chance of a future. The Greens have proposed a series of measures designed to give people hope and to work with our neighbours so that we have the credibility and good faith in our region to develop a long-term, truly regional approach to what we know is a regional phenomenon. These measures would include increasing Australia's humanitarian intake to 25,000 people a year and urgently resettling at least 1,000 people from Indonesia and at least 4,000 from Malaysia. We would uncouple the link between the number of onshore refugees and the number of offshore refugees who are eligible for humanitarian visas-something that the refugee advocate community is constantly saying is necessary.

We would significantly boost the number of family reunion places within the humanitarian program. We would review carrier sanctions and visa impediments for people seeking protection by air, to overcome what is often a racist discrepancy when it comes to the status of people who arrive by air. We would increase funding to the UNHCR in Indonesia so that they have a stronger capacity to assess asylum seeker applications and vastly speed up the process. We would develop a new regional plan of action with our neighbours on a respectful basis-not on a basis where we are essentially being hypocritical, pointing the finger at them for their human rights abuses and breaches and yet not being prepared to abide by the convention that we signed up to in good faith in 1954.

Finally, if we were serious about saving lives at sea we would codify our obligations to protect life at sea when people are on those boats. I am very pleased that some of these Australian Greens measures have been taken up by the expert panel but the fact remains that their recommendations also contain some of the worst aspects of punitive, Howard-era policies, designed to deter people from coming to Australia-wherever else they may go, but not to Australia-dressed up as compassion.

I cannot support this legislation. It will not prevent people from boarding boats and it will not save lives. Further, it will remove the few human rights included in the offshore processing legislation passed in 2001. It will open the way for any country to be designated for offshore processing, regardless of whether it is a party to the refugee convention or not. It will allow the displacement of people to hellholes like Nauru, out of sight, away from scrutiny by the public and by the media, and away from independent legal and mental health assistance. It will allow the transfer of child asylum seekers from Australia and the transfer of unaccompanied minors, who will not necessarily have a guardian to act in their best interests-in breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It will allow banishment to Nauru, or Manus Island or, essentially, anywhere but here.

In my first speech in parliament a year ago I noted how over time our Australian map has been redrawn to pretend that some parts of our country are not Australian territory at all-Christmas Island, for instance. The legal term for this process is 'incision'. This noxious policy was introduced by John Howard in 2001, and it requires us effectively to renounce part of our territory so that we can disavow our responsibility for those who come to us seeking asylum. As a lawyer I always found this legal fiction, designed purely to worm out of our international obligations, shameful. What this bill will require is that the entire Australian land mass be excised to enable the refugee arriving by boat anywhere on our continent to be transferred elsewhere for processing. What does this say about us? Does this renunciation of our territory chillingly reflect the gradual erosion of core Australian values of generosity and compassion?

One of the most concerning aspects of this legislation is the possibility of unlimited detention. Under John Howard's so-called Pacific Solution people spent up to four years in detention in Nauru, but under the new Pacific Solution this could be even longer because there is no time limit on how long people will be in these detention centres. We know that indefinite detention deprives people of hope, their sense of autonomy and their sense of a future. And we know that it leads to mental health problems on a massive scale. We know what happened to the people on Nauru. The mental health experts who visited the island confirmed that asylum seekers on Nauru had a history of suicide attempts and incidents of self-harm. The centre psychiatrist was finding it difficult to manage the psychotic features that he was seeing among the residents there and their suicidal thoughts.

Many, many mental health experts have condemned the effects of mandatory detention both in the past and in response to this proposed legislation, especially the effects of indefinite detention on the mental health of human beings. Respected psychiatrist, Professor Pat McGorry, has said:

... we know that after about six and certainly 12 months in detention, mental health will deteriorate, and there's very good evidence for that.
We also know that people who have been through previous detention and torture and severe trauma of other kinds-
which many of these asylum seekers have experienced-
... are especially vulnerable to these effects, and particularly children and adolescents.

What we also know is that over the last 15 years, 90 per cent of the people in immigration detention were ultimately found to be genuine refugees and became Australian citizens. And yet before we do that we leave them in limbo with all sense of hope destroyed, often separated from their family, their friends and their community and with no certainty about the future.

This is the ultimate folly. When they finally settle in Australia we are then faced with people with ongoing mental health problems. Professor Louise Newman, on the radio this morning, was saying that in 2012 she is still treating people who are suffering the mental health effects of detention on Nauru. It is almost as if this process is designed to destroy the very resilience, courage and initiative that people who have the wherewithal to flee from persecution to find a better future bring with them. They have such a capacity to make good, grateful, strong and resilient citizens in Australia. It is as if our processes and policies were designed to destroy that very inherent core.

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