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Christine Milne on Cambodian refugee deal: "How have we got to this appalling state?"

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Christine Milne 1 Oct 2014

The Australian Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, speaks to a Matter of Public Importance in the senate on the Abbott Government's treatment of asylum seekers detained offshore at Nauru and Manus Island, as well as the recently signed deal with Cambodia.

Senator MILNE: I rise to ask the question: how have we in Australia got to such an appalling point that we have 1,200 people stuck on Nauru in the most appalling circumstances?

Senator Brandis: Because of the Labor government that you supported in office, Christine!

Senator MILNE: I know Senator Brandis would like to contribute, so perhaps he would like to put his name on the speaking list. That the issue for me is this: how have we got to this point? The one thing Senator Brandis says that is correct there is that this did occur because of the Labor government.

Senator Brandis: Which you supported in office, with policies you endorsed!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Lines ): Order, Senator Brandis.

Senator MILNE: It did occur, although I cannot understand how Senator Back was so disinterested in the debate that he did not notice that it was only the Greens in this parliament who stood up and debated at length the decision of the former Gillard government to open offshore detention. It was the Greens who stood up, when Senator Lundy was the minister, and questioned her rigorously about the claims that the Labor Party in government made about the oversight that would be given to the offshore detention centres. That will stay on the record and haunt her for the rest of her life, because Senator Lundy stood there and said that there would be oversight and that all of these things that have happened would not happen. But that was exactly what happened and those centres should have been closed down.

Now we have an even worse situation where this government does not even pretend to care that we have got 1,200 people stuck on Nauru, which has a failing economy. They do not even have enough money. They are going to run out of money even to run their generators. They cannot pay the wages; the place is going broke. You have got people locked up in the detention centre who, when they heard of the temporary protection visa deal and when they heard of the Cambodian deal, immediately went into such a state of distress that there were three suicide attempts and there was self harm going on. A 14-year-old girl has taken over leading the protests, because her father has gone into such a state of distress. People have refused to drink and people are sewing their lips together. Another young girl swallowed washing powder, causing her to vomit blood. She was sent to Sydney over the weekend. This level of self harm is particularly amongst children.

Ought we not be asking ourselves: how do we actually cope with the idea that it is because of the Australian government's policy that we are forcing children, young kids at 14 years old, to sew their lips together to try and kill themselves? Who is going to take responsibility for that? I saw that the minister was asked about the fact that there are allegations of guards who were saying to women on Nauru that if they want to shower for longer than two minutes, they have to do disrobe and they have to show their bodies. There are allegations like that and the minister says that, if that is found to be true, he would be, 'Pretty damn cross.'

Actually, he needs to be more than pretty damn cross. He has got to take responsibility. There is such a thing as ministerial responsibility. He has oversight of these offshore detention centres. Reza Berati is dead-murdered at Manus Island. We have young people who are actually trying to kill themselves. There are appalling allegations of exploitation. Now we have a deal with Cambodia.

Cambodia is one of the most corrupt countries on the planet. In January this year, the Australian government made a presentation to the Human Rights Committee condemning the human rights abuse record in Cambodia. So the government cannot pretend it does not know; it does. It reported that about Cambodia earlier this year; yet, despite that, the Australian government is paying a bribe of $35 million to $40 million to the Cambodian government, to the Hun Sen regime, to take our refugees. What are the conditions? Well, we know very little. What we do know is that this is a country with very little freedom of expression. As I said, corruption is endemic there. They have appalling international scrutiny.

Senator O'Sullivan: Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. The reference by the senator that accuses our government of paying Cambodia a bribe is highly offensive, and I think it offends section 193 of the standing orders.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Sterle ): There is no point of order, Senator O'Sullivan.

Senator MILNE: As I indicated, Cambodia is one of the most corrupt countries on the planet. Ministers in the Hun Sen government are known to take bribes. The leader of the opposition in Cambodia, Sam Rainsy, has come out and said that any money Australia pays will go straight into the back pockets of government ministers. That is the way of it. What is being promised there and what refugees are being told is that they will not be able to live in Phnom Penh after they get a basic grasp of the Khmer language. They will be forced to relocate outside Phnom Penh. This is contrary to the refugee convention, for a start. You cannot force people as to where they can and cannot live. Then the refugees are to be given minimal assistance for 12 months, at Cambodian subsistence levels, which is poverty. And then, at the end of 12 months, the Australian government will assist them to go back to their country of origin-in other words, to facilitate refoulement. That is exactly what has been going on in Sri Lanka.

The Australian government is sending back refugees to Sri Lanka, where they are being raped and tortured. The Australian government does not want to know about it. It does not follow up. The ADF allegedly did not interview someone when they wanted to give evidence about the fact that they had been abused when they went back, yet they will be refouled from Sri Lanka. That is exactly what is going to happen with Cambodia. Australia has offered to assist Cambodia in returning refugees to their country of origin.

So we have a shocking level of abuse going on here. We are removing reference to the human rights convention, the refugee convention, in legislation. We are abusing people. I thought what Senator Back said was interesting. We do not know if it is a new announcement from the government; but, apparently, it seems to be. The government cut the humanitarian refugee intake from 20,000 to 13,750. So, far from increasing the refugee intake, the government has cut it, but Senator Back just said that it was to be increased to 20,000. I will be very interested to know if in fact it is a government announcement to increase the humanitarian intake to 20,000. However, the point here is that we have a government of a rich country like Australia that is absolutely shirking its responsibility to look after refugees. Instead, it is sending refugees into appalling circumstances on Nauru and Manus Island. It is now signing an extremely dubious deal with Cambodia. Not only was there rioting on Nauru when this announcement was made; there was an immediate protest outside the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh, where Cambodians said it is a shocking thing that Australia is doing. How can a rich country shirk its responsibilities and send these people to one of the poorest and most corrupt countries on the planet and then say that their $35 million or $40 million, or whatever it is, will somehow be spent on those refugees when there is no detail? Where are they are going to be housed? How are they going to be supported? And after the 12 months, what will happen to them? Why won't they end up like the hundreds of others living on the rubbish tips outside the boundaries of the cities? And the reason we will not know is that the Australian government do not care and do not follow-up. They do not follow-up the people they send back to Sri Lanka, they do not follow-up what is going on in Nauru and they will not follow-up what is going on on Manus Island. And now we go to what will actually happen in Cambodia. That is why I put the issue of ministerial responsibility on the public record.

Senator Brandis interjecting-

Senator MILNE: I know that Senator Brandis and others find this a very amusing subject, but it is far from amusing. In time, there will be people who will look back on this and say: 'How is it that this actually happened in Australia? How is it that the Liberal, Labor and National parties thought sending refugees to offshore detention centres was in any way a reasonable thing to do?' We should be processing people when they come here. It is not illegal to seek asylum. The constant lie that is told about illegal arrivals is just that; it is a lie. It is not illegal to seek asylum. Now we have the situation where refugees will come from the Middle East in their hundreds of thousands, and Australia will be saying, 'It is such a shocking situation there that we have to go to war, but we will not accept the refugees who end up here'-as they have from Afghanistan, from Iraq previously and from Pakistan. 'We're sending them back.' Appalling!

[End]

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