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Speech on designation of Nauru as a Regional Processing Country

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 12 Sep 2012

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (10:09):

This is another dark day in the life of this parliament as I stand to speak today on the designation of the Republic of Nauru as a regional processing country. This designation is being made by the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship pursuant to section 198AB(1) of the Migration Act 1958. This has become possible because of the recent shameful passage of the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012-another dark day in the life of this parliament. The Human Rights Law Centre have been scathing about the human rights violations inherent in this legislation. To quote them:

It enables the government of the day to designate any country as a regional processing country regardless of the human rights protections afforded in that country either under international or domestic law. This is likely to give rise to violations of non-refoulement obligations under the Refugee Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture, all of which have been ratified by Australia.

They go on to say:

The Act provides for the removal of unaccompanied children to a regional processing country for a broad range of reasons considered to be in the 'national interest', contrary to the general obligation under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure that the best interests of the child are given primary consideration and the specific obligation to ensure that asylum seeker children receive all necessary human rights protections and humanitarian assistance.

It does not stop there. The Human Rights Law Centre also point out:

The act provides that the rules of natural justice do not apply to a range of Ministerial decisions, including decisions as to which countries should be designated as regional processing countries, whether an asylum seeker should be sent offshore, and which regional processing country an asylum seeker should be sent to. This directly breaches Australia's obligations under the ICCPR to ensure that, in the determination of rights and obligations, a person must have access to the courts and is entitled to a full and fair hearing.

It is a very bad day when we are asked, in the Australian parliament, to support a government process that will see the export of vulnerable people, who have come to our country seeking asylum and our protection, to another country, where the length of their stay is indeterminate, there are inadequate facilities for their accommodation and the only condition for the exercise of the Minister of Immigration's power is that it is in 'the national interest' as determined by him or her.

The designation of a country to be a regional processing country specifically need not be determined by reference to the international obligations or domestic law of that country; as the Human Rights Law Centre said, 'regardless of whether that country has human rights protections in international or domestic law'. This designation has not been subject to human rights scrutiny which would be available under the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011, which established the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights earlier this year. That committee and that legislation were established to scrutinise the engagement of human rights in relation to legislation and subordinate legislation in this parliament. But the government has chosen to exclude the designation from the scrutiny of that process. Why is that? It is stated in clause 12 of the explanatory memorandum with regard to a statement of compatibility-which is ordinarily prepared in relation to legislation and subordinate legislation for the committee then to have an opportunity to assess whether human rights are engaged, to what extent they are compromised and to what extent that would be justifiable-that a statement of compatibility has not been prepared for this instrument. That is because there is not a technical requirement, according to the explanatory memorandum, that that occur because of the nature of the way this particular instrument has been created. But why, when there are so many questions about this entire process, has a statement of compatibility not been provided so that this parliament can have clear scrutiny about the implications of the decision that we are being asked to ratify the day? It is a very bad day when the majority of parliamentarians, those in the coalition and the ALP, are choosing to turn a blind eye to these violations in the name of our 'national interest'. I know that many Australians agree that in relation to refugee policy we need a humane solution to what is a very complex issue. The Australian Greens say that it is our humanity and our essential decency as Australians which is in our long-term national interest. But despite the wealth, prosperity and advancement of our nation, when it comes to refugee policy this government has taken us backwards. The Australian Greens have an alternative to this. We have a humane solution-one that will save lives by providing safer pathways, not by punishing people and banishing them for an indefinite period to far-flung dumping grounds provided by our less wealthy neighbours.

The Greens have a humane, compassionate and human rights based approach to refugee policy in Australia. Our practical proposal for a New Regional Plan of Action has strong support from refugee advocates, human rights lawyers and members of the Australian community. But instead, the Gillard government has fallen into line with the former Howard government and Tony Abbot's coalition to pursue an approach which it has previously criticised vociferously when in opposition. It has continued and, indeed, strengthened offshore processing as the central tenet of its refugee policy. Let us make no mistake: the government's policy is inhumane and it will be ineffective; it will fail. Indeed it is already failing, with so many arrivals since the policy was announced that Nauru and Manus Island are already full before they are even opened.

Paul Lonot Sireh is a Manusian, a Manus Islander, and I recently read his heartfelt plea for humanity-not only for his own people but also for those who will be subject to detention on his homeland. Why is it that the poorest-those who have the least-often have more capacity for compassion and generosity than those who have much? I will share his words:
Being a Manusian, I am feeling sad for my island and my people. I was born and bred in Manus and did my primary and secondary schooling there before going to the seminary to study for the priesthood. I left PNG for Australia about 12 years ago.

The move to spend millions of dollars to reopen the Manus detention centre is very much like building a palace in the middle of a slum. Manus Island is a forgotten province in PNG to say the least as regards development. People's lifestyle is undisturbed and peaceful. However like most developing peoples we are now feeling marginalized and our needs ignored by both governments. Because I reside in Australia, l am privileged to have access to a modern and western lifestyle, with three meals a day, better clothing, and many other benefits from living in this country. Manus Islanders don't have these privileges.

Can both the Australian and PNG governments help improve the living conditions of the islanders before thinking of spending millions on an exercise that will not be beneficial to all? If foreigners are to be sent to Manus how will the needs of all Manus Islanders be met?

What would be the ideal way to boost the local economy on Manus? Here are a few suggestions for much needed improvements to infrastructure. Our deserted Lorengau town needs to be developed with good roads, housing and good sanitation. The Manus highway is very much like a logging track. The wharf has been there since World War II. People are dying every day because there are insufficient drugs and no hospital facilities to attend to the sick. The airport terminal needs to be renovated or completely rebuilt. These are just some of the vital needs of Manus Island if Australia and PNG governments are serious about boosting the local economy.

But my main concern is that Australia is a prosperous First World nation that is economically capable of accepting a much large number of refugees who reach our shores seeking asylum from war, violence and persecution. By offering Manus PNG, with a much weaker developing economy, substantial aid to process many of these asylum seekers, Australia is lapsing back into the habits of its colonial past by exploiting the resources of another nation, in this case the willingness and economic needs of the remote Manus Islanders. The government is asking Manus-PNG to do what they themselves are not willing to do. The fact that the government's motive is to deny asylum seekers the protection of Australian Law makes moving their problems to PNG all the more reprehensible.

Every time we sing Advance Australia Fair:
For those who've come across the seas
We've boundless plains to share;
my heart sinks. If Australia cannot welcome these asylum seekers into these boundless plains, then please omit this line from the national anthem. Despite the many differences, are there not also many parallels with the early history of Australia, when England decided to solve her convict problems by sending them around the world to Botany Bay-out of sight, out of mind?

He goes on to say it is important to recall the words and experience of the Palestinian asylum seeker Aladdin Sisalem, the sole detainee on Manus Island for 10 months in 2004. He told ABC Radio's Saturday AM program that he is not surprised by the federal government's approach to PNG. It would be wrong, he said, to reopen the facility.
It's a senseless decision, a very bad decision-bad for people's life, bad for the taxpayers' money. Mostly it was the fear on what is behind it, what is going to happen next, because I find that I have no human rights at all-anything can happen to me.

Every time I got the news that I will be released from detention to Australia, I was still unsure about it until I actually left the plane with some other people here in Melbourne. I wasn't secure until that moment.

I actually do have a mental disability now from the post-traumatic stress and suffering. It's been so hard to build this life again after that.
Paul Sireh concludes:

I strongly urge that such experiences should not happen again. To re-open the Manus detention centre would be inhumane and destructive for the health and wellbeing of all involved.
Please leave Manus Island alone if the local people can't benefit from it, and the very name of Manus Island becomes linked around the world with injustice and persecution.

We know that we will be asked to make a decision like this one about Manus Island in the future; it is on the government's list of future asylum seeker destinations. But the observations are equally applicable to Nauru-the fact that Australia is displacing its own responsibilities onto less wealthy, more needy neighbouring countries.

If it is lives we genuinely want to save then this is not the way to proceed. Refugee advocates and experts consistently advise that the only way to save lives and deter people from boarding boats is by providing safer pathways for people fleeing persecution, terror and hopelessness. As Malcolm Fraser said in 2011:

What has been forgotten in this debate is that desperate people will go to any lengths to get to a country that they believe to be safe and that they know will give them, and more particularly their children, a future.

If we look into our own hearts and consider what we would do in similar circumstances, it does not take much imagination to understand that these are the decisions that we would also be driven to make.

If drowning at sea is not a deterrent to boarding boats then punishing people by sending them away for indefinite periods out of sight and beyond scrutiny will not deter them. But it will endanger many, many more lives, because refugees will continue to arrive. As we know from our previous experience of warehousing people on Nauru, when they are detained for long periods of time we will put their health and their wellbeing and even their lives at serious risk. We know that immigration detention centres inevitably become an excellent vehicle for producing mental illness and mental disorder, and the mental health impacts are exacerbated by offshore processing. The uncertainty of immigration detention, currently for indefinite periods in order to create a nebulous no disadvantage effect, leads to hopelessness and despair. The government has consistently failed to indicate what this actually means in practice. It is a cruel and open-ended sentence imposed on people who have already survived experiences that most of us can barely imagine.

The vast majority of people in immigration detention are ultimately determined to be refugees-about 90 per cent-and granted Australian residency. Yet we are willing to leave them to languish in limbo until there is a strong risk that their sense of hope and a future is destroyed through living in a constant state of uncertainty, separated from family, friends and community. The overwhelming majority have fled war-torn countries. Many of those seeking asylum have experienced torture or trauma, and we know immigration detention compounds these existing problems. Unsurprisingly, victims of torture need supportive, caring environments and adequate access to health services, and receive neither in immigration detention. History teaches us very clearly that offshore processing will lead to self-harm, severe depression, suicide attempts and loss of lives through suicide.

Many mental health experts have decried the effects of indefinite detention and they are clearly on the record. Professor Patrick 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 are especially vulnerable to these effects, and particularly children and adolescents.'

Many of Australia's mental health and health organisations are united in their concern about the standards of mental health care in our detention centres. They include a long list of organisations: the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses; the Australian Nursing Federation; the Australian Medical Association; the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists; the Mental Health Council of Australia; the Brain and Mind Research Institute; Orygen Youth Health; the National Mental Health Consumer and Carer Forum; the Australian Psychological Society; Sane Australia; Professor Louise Newman, Royal College of Nursing Australia; Lifeline Australia; the Australian College of Psychological Medicine; the Mental Health Research Institute; Catholic Social Services Australia; the Mental Health Association of Central Australia; the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia; the Australian Association of Social Workers; the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners; and Suicide Prevention Australia. Last year, they were united in demanding that there be an independent investigation into the standards of mental health care in our detention centres because we know that detention centres wreck people's minds.

It is clear that locking people up destroys wellbeing and mental health, and the absence of time limits entrenches this damage. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has consistently tried to ameliorate the harshest aspects of this policy by introducing basic safeguards of time limits for detention. It is for this reason that the Greens are seeking amendments to ameliorate the worst aspects of this designation-a 12-month time limit and an independent healthcare panel to oversee the health and wellbeing of people in offshore detention. But the government and the coalition appear to be intransigent and their recklessness as to the likely damage to the mental health of asylum seekers in the interests of adding to deterrence is utterly unconscionable.

Through this policy, they are condemning another cohort of refugees to wretchedness and enduring suffering into the future, and most of these people will become Australian residents. The Australian Greens remain utterly opposed to this action by the Labor government, which is urged and is supported by the coalition parties. I believe that in the future Australians will look back, as with other shameful periods in our history, at this time of hysteria, fear and madness and say, 'What were they, our elected representatives, thinking?'

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