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Christine Milne: Every child has a right to a name and a nationality

Speeches in Parliament
Christine Milne 4 Dec 2014

The Australian Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, addresses the Senate regarding the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014.

Senator MILNE: On 5 April 2013 the now Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who was the opposition leader at the time, in a speech to his favourite organisation, the Institute of Public Affairs-that is, the Rupert Murdoch-Gina Rinehart think tank-said this:

'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' is the foundation of our justice. 'Love your neighbour as you love yourself' is the foundation of our mercy.
That was our Prime Minister when he was the Leader of the Opposition, and now this government is engaged in what I think will be regarded as crimes against humanity because it is systematic abuse. It is not one-off, not by any means: it is systematic and deliberate humiliation and degradation of people, and a deliberate and systemic process to destroy people's mental health. That is what this government has undertaken, and that is what we are talking about here today. The fact that there are children locked up in detention at all is a disgrace, and the minister has the power right now to free all of those children and their families, but he will not do it. He will not do it because he wants to treat those children as pawns in a political game to try to get more power and to get more disgraceful legislation through this parliament. What sort of a person uses the fact that he has the power to keep children locked up behind barbed wire in detention centres and decides to trade or not to trade their freedom depending on whether he can get other people to agree to give him more powers which are against international law?

As a nation, we would be the first to condemn other countries for behaving in such a way, but here we are, Australia, doing it ourselves. A campaign has started around the country: 'Australia-we are better than this'. And we are better than this as a country. As you well know, Mr Acting Deputy President Seselja, under crimes against humanity they are defined as odious offences, constituting a serious attack on human dignity and grave humiliation or degradation of human beings. People can be held personally responsible for these crimes-and the threshold, as I said, is that it is systemic. People who vote for these things need to recognise that this is more than just a political debate in the Australian parliament; this is more than the Australian parliament making a law. The Australian parliament and people who make these laws will be held to account, and they should be held to account.

There are so many things wrong with this legislation that it is hard to know where to begin. Schedule 6 provides that you can classify children born in Australia to asylum seeker parents as unauthorised maritime arrivals. No, they are not. They are babies born in Australia on Australian soil, and they should be regarded in the same way as any other child born here and be given their citizenship-their statehood. But we are taking their statehood away from them. We are leaving them as stateless people.

What do you call this treatment of pregnant women? There are two women on Nauru who are eight months pregnant. They had been classified as genuine refugees and were settled as refugees on Nauru-not criminals but settled refugees-but, because Australia has determined to send people to Nauru, where, clearly, the medical facilities are not good enough and these women had to be sent to Australia to have their babies, they have been put in detention. They are eight months pregnant and were put in detention, when they are settled refugees. I call that disgraceful and grave humiliation of those people. It is degradation of their human rights. They are settled refugees-they should be treated with the respect that they deserve, not shoved into detention. Children are already in detention-we have had endless reports of the mental health stress of those children. They should be freed immediately, but a piece of legislation has been put up that says: 'Oh, well, if you want those children to be freed, you agree to this other appalling set of provisions.' I want to go through some of those.

I want to talk first of all about the minister's grab for power-that is, the removal of judicial oversight of the use of maritime powers. The fact that this bill will amend the Maritime Powers Act and remove judicial scrutiny of whether Australia complies with certain human rights obligations, by removing a role for judges and removing a role for the courts to invalidate government actions at sea, proves and provides that the rules of natural justice do not apply to certain key actions. It suspends Australia's international obligations in the context of powers exercised under the Maritime Powers Act. This is the parliament saying that it will exempt itself and its behaviour from the scrutiny of the courts. This is absolutely shocking behaviour in international law terms-we are abrogating our responsibilities under international law just so this minister can do what he likes on behalf of his government. Every one of his ministers and every one of the crossbenchers who votes for this is voting for Australia to exempt itself from the provisions of international law for the sole purposes of the minister being able to do what he likes on the high seas. And why? Because the courts are catching up with him-that is why. The High Court is catching up with the behaviour of this government, so what do the government do? They exempt themselves from the scrutiny of the courts. What disgraceful behaviour from a government.

I want to go back to what this bill does in relation to again bringing in temporary protection visas. Thirty thousand people have already sought Australia's protection between August 2012 and December 2013. They have already suffered physically and mentally. They have been locked up in mandatory detention, separated from their families, uncertain about their legal status and at constant risk of removal to Nauru or Manus Island. On Manus Island, of course, they know that Reza Barati was murdered. Nobody has been held to account for that murder, and this government has tried to palm off responsibility to so-called service providers. The responsibility for whatever happens to people on Manus Island or in the detention centres in Nauru lies firmly and squarely with the Australian government.

What this does is go way beyond the legacy caseload suggestion put here by the government. It is a serious departure from Australia's international obligations under human rights and it is procedurally unfair and unjust. Basically, this bill changes the criterion by which a person is found to be owed protection and the nature of the protection provided by Australia to those in genuine need. It changes the legal status of those seeking our protection and empowers a range of government agencies to restrict or remove their liberty.

I cannot believe that we are in this situation. I have looked around the world in the past and I have asked myself the question: how is it that decent people who care about other people have allowed the atrocities that go on around them and have just carried on with their lives as though it was not happening? I have never understood how it could happen. And now I am standing in a parliament where it is happening, where people will happily go home for Christmas and sit up with their own families making speeches saying, 'Do unto others as you would have them do under you,' and make speeches saying, 'Love your neighbours as you love yourself,' and happily lock up people in detention, excluding Australian government actions from the courts, leaving thousands of people in the mental anguish of never being able to settle in this country and wondering what on earth will happen to them in the future. They will happily head off to church, talk about their Christianity, yet fundamental Christian principles, fundamental decency and fundamental principles of humanity are being violated here knowingly and wilfully.

I also want to put on the record that while people will argue that they have no personal responsibility for the crimes that are going to be carried out as a result of this legislation passing, yes they do. They cannot say they did not know. They cannot say it was not wilful and they cannot use any other excuse. Wilfully and knowingly passing this legislation means that you are signing up to crimes against humanity and it is in the Australian parliament that people are doing it. The rest of the world is going to be horrified when they see the detail of what it is that Australia is doing to people. I just find it extraordinary.

As Save the Children has explained, temporary protection visas will mean people fleeing persecution are left in limbo, forced to prove and reprove they are refugees. The emotional and mental cost of such uncertainty is enormous and well documented. There is a body of significant medical evidence which shows the incredibly detrimental effects on people's mental health. It is just disgraceful that this is being allowed to happen and that people are going to vote for it.

The other thing that is appalling is that it is allowing for fast-tracking to occur. To make things worse, under this fast-track process, applicants for protection visas will no longer be entitled to have the merits of their claim reviewed by the Refugee Review Tribunal. In some cases but not all they will be able to have their case looked at by the immigration assessment authority, but it will not involve any hearings where the applicant can set out their claims and a decision will be made purely on the papers. Of course everybody knows that for refugees and people seeking asylum that is going to be virtually impossible. Many of them are already frightened of the authorities because of the way they have had to leave the countries they have been in. They will have no papers and no-one to justify or prove or verify some of the things they are saying.

This is setting up a grossly unfair procedural process. And you are knowingly doing it. It is beyond my understanding of how you continue to use this Orwellian language. 'Unauthorised maritime arrival'-no, person, people like you and I, people with parents, with children, with brothers and sisters and families and hopes for a better future, people who have had to leave Afghanistan, Hazaras who have had to leave because they are being persecuted. And this government thinks it is fine to turn them around at sea and send them back to Sri Lanka, for example, where you know and I know that the Rajapaksa government is engaged in crimes against humanity all the time, yet you appease them. You appease the Rajapaksas. You know exactly what they are doing in Sri Lanka. You know what they are doing to the Tamils. You know that the white vans turn up and people disappear, yet you send asylum seekers back because it suits you to do so and, what is more, you give to the Rajapaksa regime some of the vessels which will better able them to intercept people leaving or to return them.

You are more than happy to turn people around, to traumatise the Navy, for example, as we saw on the 7.30 Report this week where people were horrified about what they have been expected to do. They have been given no counselling or assistance even though they are experiencing the humanity they feel about seeing the way these people are being treated. There is the fact that anyone could say it would be inconvenient for a refugee vessel to turn up on Australia Day, 'So let's make sure that doesn't happen, let's turn them around, let's push them back, let's do what we like, let's get rid of them because they're unauthorised maritime arrivals.' No, they are people of whom the Prime Minister has said, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' It is very clear that he does not believe that. The Prime Minister would not have his own family treated in this way. He would not have a child of his own family left stateless.

Every child has a right to a name and a nationality, a statehood. In the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child every child has a right to a name and a nationality, yet you are taking that away from them

You are saying: 'That child will be stateless and, what's more, we're not even calling a child a child; we're just going to label them'-in Orwellian terms-'an "unauthorised maritime arrival."'

International law will catch up with this government. The International Criminal Court was set up to look at systemic abuse by governments around the world. This government will be and is in breach of international law. Everyone who votes for this legislation will be knowingly and wilfully supporting breaches of international law and will be subject to the same scrutiny in international law-as they deserve to be. You can walk out of this parliament and think you have gotten away with it, think you have pulled some great stunt-and in another 20 years, of course, we will have the apology, and people will tell their children that they had nothing to do with that, that they could not possibly have known; if they had known, it certainly would not have happened. Well, they do know and they are knowing and they have done it. They are making children stateless. They are making people live in limbo on temporary protection visas, with no hope for the future, and deliberately imposing mental health problems on a group of people. They are deliberately exempting the Australian government from the law, to enable the minister to do as he likes on the high seas. That is a disgrace.

I know that this government will rush out there and say, 'Oh, we were doing it to free the children before Christmas.' The Christmas story has Mary trying to get to the inn-you might remember, Mr Acting Deputy President-but the inn was closed, and that is why she ended up in a stable. This lot are the innkeepers, closing the door. So, when you tell your Christmas stories, I hope you will explain to your own families that you are the innkeepers. You are closing the door. You are sending refugee women who are pregnant into detention, even though they are refugees. 'Settled refugees' is the term. So let us actually have on the record here what this government is doing, and let us not have this being said: 'Oh, we had to get the children out.' The minister has the power to get them out immediately. The minister has the power not to put them into detention in the first place. They should never have gone into detention. They are being illegally held in detention. It is not illegal to seek asylum. It is wrong that they are being locked up and their freedom deliberately taken from them. This is appalling legislation. It is un-Australian. It is a matter of shame to me that this parliament will pass this legislation, but the future will ensure that justice will be done.

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