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Amending the Migration Act

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 12 Dec 2013

Senator WRIGHT:  I rise in support of the Migration Amendment (Visa Maximum Numbers Determinations) Bill 2013. This Australian Greens bill amends the Migration Act 1958 so that legislative instruments designated under section 85, which relates to a limit on visas, can be disallowed. In other words, this bill seeks to ensure that the decisions made by the minister about visa limits are ultimately accountable to this parliament. This bill will give the parliament a final say on visa caps and freezes and not leave it in the hands of a minister who has a track record of capricious and punitive decision making.

Why are the Australian Greens introducing this important bill? Last week, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, made a decision which placed a cap, a limit, on the number of protection visas for the 2013-14 financial year. His decision will affect many, many people-the 30,000 asylum seekers who are currently waiting to be resettled in Australia. The freeze is retrospective. That means that, as the cap of 1,650 protection visas to be issued for this financial year has already been reached, it leaves those who have already been determined to be refugees in a state of limbo and prolonged uncertainty. Of those 30,000 asylum seekers, 21,000 have been legally determined to be refugees and are living in the community on bridging visas.

Let us go back to basics and pause and remind ourselves what it means to be a legally-determined refugee. What does it require? A refugee is a person who has been found to have fled their country of origin. It is a person who has fled because they have a well-grounded fear of persecution because of their race, their religion, their nationality, their membership of a particular social group or their political opinion. It is also a person who has been found to be unable to rely on the protection of the authorities in their country of origin, and so they have fled-seeking refuge, seeking a sanctuary.

The Greens do not support bridging visas, because they condemn applicants to a state of limbo. These vulnerable people are not allowed to work and may only receive temporary or reduced government financial support-financial support which is not adequate to keep body and soul together.

I would like to tell you something about what it is like to live in a state of uncertainty or limbo. This is based on a meeting I had with a young constituent of mine, a young man of 20. I will call him J, because his name starts with the letter 'J'. He approached me recently. He came to Australia in 2010 when he was 17, and he was one of the lucky asylum seekers, in a sense, because he was granted a permanent visa to remain here indefinitely. J was a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan. While living in Afghanistan with his family-his parents and his four siblings-his father disappeared and it is strongly believed that he was murdered by the Taliban because he was transporting government wheat in his truck.

Prior to that and thereafter, J and his family were constantly threatened because they wanted to vote and because they were going to school. Finally, he tells me, his mother beseeched him to leave. She was so fearful that he would also die like his father that she beseeched him to leave, and yet he also told me that, when it came to the point of him leaving, she was in tears and strongly wanting him to stay. She was what every mother would be in that situation: she was trying to save his life and yet so sad to see her son heading off wherever, not knowing whether she would ever see him again.

Now J lives in Adelaide. He works two jobs, and his mother and his four siblings were able to escape and are living in Quetta in Pakistan. It is a place of extreme risk, and they are living on a very low income such that they can barely feed themselves and keep body and soul together. I saw J because one of his employers at his two jobs brought him to me because he was absolutely despairing of J's future and also his welfare. He noticed that J was not concentrating very well at work-he had always been a very hard worker at the manual job-and discovered that J had not eaten for 48 hours because he was so desperately trying to save money to send to his family and also to try to bring them to Australia. He was actually extremely malnourished. So he brought him to me and wanted J's story to be told.

J's anxiety and despondency is totally compounded by his fear for his family in Pakistan and the constant knowledge that the money that he is able to send to them from two jobs while also contributing to a household of other asylum seekers who are not employed and not able to work means he has not only no money for himself but also insufficient money to send to his family. When I met him in September J was despairing because he was fully aware of the new government's posturing on immigration and that it boded very ill for his ability to reunite with his family here and for the asylum seekers with whom he shared his home who did not have permanent visas.

I want to say that these punitive policies do not work as a deterrent. No matter how well people like J understand the punitive measures our government is providing, they are always going to weigh those up with the conditions in their country of origin. When someone is facing, death, rape, persecution or torture, they ultimately will have no choice but to vote with their feet. All these punitive policies do is compound the suffering they have already experienced when they come to our country seeking refuge.

For J, his fear for his mother and his siblings' safety is the reason he wants to bring them here. It is that simple. He is an extremely impressive young man. He is an intelligent young man. He would love to study, particularly maths and science. Whether he will ever have a chance to do that in Australia I do not know. He is a loving son and brother. He feels incredibly responsible and loyal to his family and he feels intense distress not only at the dangers they are in but also at the uncertainty in the area of asylum seeking and refugees in Australia.

This decision by the immigration minister will affect 30,000 asylum seekers. As I said, 21,000 of them are refugees and the remaining 9,000 are being held in detention centres or community detention. As we know, the United Nations has recently slammed the conditions of Australia's offshore detention camps. Its High Commissioner for Human Rights visited the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres in October last year, and the findings were alarming. They said the centres did not comply with international law standards. What a shameful thing for Australia to have a UN representative saying we do not comply with international law standards. In particular they found that they do not provide a fair, efficient and expeditious system for assessing refugee claims and are uncertain and capricious rather than having a fair and reliable rule of law that we in Australia would demand for ourselves. They do not provide safe and humane conditions of treatment in detention and they do not provide adequate and timely solutions for refugees.

The implications of this government's freeze on protection visas are devastating. Asylum seekers, including women and children who are being detained in immigration or community detention-some for more than four years-and those on bridging visas will never be granted permanent protection in Australia. I have to ask how deeply these Australian governments-and there is a poor track record on the part of the previous government too; let's be really honest about that-are willing to sink in our name before they realise that cruelty does not work and that it is not the way that we want to behave on the international stage in Australia.

By keeping the world's most vulnerable people, who have come seeking our help, in a state of permanent limbo, the government is compounding refugees' suffering, including increased risk of mental and physical health problems. We are already seeing those effects amongst asylum seekers, of course. I think we are all now aware of the 7.30 report about Manus Island in relation to the findings of Amnesty International. Last night the 7.30 program aired a report with information from AI's researchers and translators who accessed Manus Island last month. These professional people who have seen the best and worst of human rights being upheld or abused around the world called the conditions in our detention centres 'cruel, inhumane, degrading and violating prohibitions against torture'. That is Australia. That is our responsibility in 2013.

One asylum seeker said: 'I get about four to five hours sleep a night due to tension and I have nothing to keep me busy. I'm just thinking and thinking through the night. I'm mostly thinking about how I can't do anything for my family.' Amnesty's team has described appalling living conditions on Manus Island, with overcrowding, a lack of medical services and little to no access to communication with the outside world-telephones or the internet. There is a lack of basic things: a lack of soap for the toilets and water in spite of requests of the medical staff.

As the Australian Greens spokesperson for mental health, I am particularly concerned about the entirely foreseeable impacts on these people's mental health. It is a matter of grave concern to me. We are already seeing a wide range of mental health problems, with depression, anxiety and lack of sleep compounding the impacts of the trauma that these people have already experienced and that has led to them fleeing their countries of origin in the first place, particularly where they have been subject to war, conflict and torture. Amnesty reports found that the mental health facilities on Manus Island are not adequate, and that is entirely consistent with the lack of support for people's health generally, with water rations amongst the people living on Manus Island reported to be as little as 500 millilitres per person per day.

The UN have particularly slammed the Nauru detention centre, saying it is rat infested, cramped and very hot. This is a place where people will be living indefinitely. They called for an end to sending children, particularly unaccompanied children, to these detention centres. The UNHCR's Richard Towle has said:

The toughness of the physical conditions is superimposed on a mandatory detention environment and that compounds people's uncertainty.

It plays with their minds. He said:

If not addressed very carefully, we could see a fairly rapid degradation of psycho-social and physical health if people don't have a fairly early determination of their fate and future.

Australia, I am saying it is reprehensible to treat our most vulnerable fellow human beings in this way. What are we doing?

The Senate's decision last week to scrap temporary protection visas was an important step in the right direction. To me it was a way of drawing a line in the sand and saying, 'We have sunk low but we will sink no further.' I was very proud to vote with the Australian Greens against the reintroduction of temporary protection visas, because we know that they do not work as a deterrent. They may be punitive but they do not work if the proposed objective is to deter people. In 1999, when temporary protection visas were introduced, they did nothing to stop the flow of asylum seekers to Australia by boat. In fact, they had the reverse effect. In the two years prior to the introduction of TPVs, 1,078 people arrived by boat. In the first two years following the introduction of TPVs, 8,312 people arrived by boat. Not only did they not deter the new arrivals but the devastating impact of denying family reunion was that more women and children were forced to take that perilous boat journey to Australia, which often ends in tragedy as we know.

So, denied the ability to issue temporary protection visas, what was the response of our statesman-like immigration minister and Prime Minister? We are currently seeing the very unedifying spectacle of punishment for punishment's sake. It is tit for tat. It is a vindictive move by Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott. They have made a cruel decision to freeze the number of protection visas, deliberately targeting the vulnerable human beings who are most affected by this whole sorry situation. The freeze will condemn these refugees to a life of fear and uncertainty, and it leaves open the possibility of returning vulnerable refugees to the very dangers that they originally fled from.

The long-term separation from a person's family and homeland and the impacts of arbitrary indefinite detention in cruel conditions, particularly for the children who are in offshore detention, will only add to the disastrous mental health impacts we are already seeing. This is a far cry from the kind of Australia that I grew up in and that I believed I would be seeing. This is a far cry from the compassion and the decency that I think are at the heart of most Australians, particularly when they know the human faces and the human stories of the people that we are treating in this way.

I would just like to share with you another story about the effects of these policies on human beings so that we cannot turn away and pretend that we do not know what this does. Each of these 30,000 people that we are talking about is an individual with a human story and a human context. Recently I visited a small primary school in South Australia. It is one of the primary schools that would benefit from an injection of funds if the Gonski formula is properly applied, because it is an area of disadvantage, but it is a joyous place to visit because it is inclusive, respectful and incredibly diverse. It is a wonderful place with wonderful staff and wonderful families, and they have a new arrivals program there where they welcome children who are living with families on bridging visas who are living with this uncertainty now. I was able to visit one of the classes, with little children who had come from all corners of the world with their families, fleeing persecution and looking for a new future in Australia. These children were being given intensive English language classes in a year-long program before being able to move into mainstream schooling. The joy, excitement, endeavour and enthusiasm of those little kids in that class-this was a class of children between about five and seven-were wonderful.

One of their teachers was relaying to me how the uncertainty of what the families live with is so adverse in its effects on those children. They come, they create and they have a family and a community at that school among the other children. There is a real culture of acceptance, inclusivity, respect and joy in that school. So they make their connections and they make their friends and then, at the flick of a pen after a capricious decision, they can be moved at any time and taken out of that school. She has seen that happen from time to time, and it means that the children-little kids like any little kids who have been born in Australia-have those basic needs of community, connection and friendship and then, having come already from a traumatised background, are potentially just ripped out of that school. They are living with that uncertainty in their families, and their mental health, their wellbeing and their ability to grow up and reach their potential are severely curtailed by that. She was passionate in talking to me about the issues that they see every day. Those teachers are working so hard to try to create an environment of nurturing and care for these vulnerable little kids.

I feel so ashamed sometimes when I think that this is the country over which we are presiding at the moment and that this apparently the sort of future that this government and those who would see a punitive regime in place would be happy to continue. So it is imperative that we as Australian people-members of the community-make sure that the government knows that it must change its way of thinking about asylum seekers and refugees, because we are a caring nation and we should care about those who wish to build a new a secure life in Australia and are putting their trust in this nation.

 

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