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We've boundless plains to share, unless you're seeking asylum

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 5 Dec 2014

I am rising today speak about the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014. It is a very long name and it is a very complicated technical name, but the thing that I want to focus on is that this bill is about people. It is about real people, it is about people's lives, it is about people who are suffering and it is about people who Australians care about and who Australians want to see protected.

I think about the refugees that this is going to affect and whom I have met over the last five months whilst I have been a senator, and the many others that I have met prior to that. In particular, I think about a lot of the refugees I met as I was on my journey to Canberra. I travelled to Canberra through regional Victoria on a listening tour, and along the way, at every stop, I managed to meet with members of the community. The plight and the fate of refugees, those who were living in the community, those who were languishing on Christmas Island and those who were locked up in detention on Nauru and Manus Island was something that people were passionate about and that they wanted to talk to me about.

My first stop on my ride out of Melbourne was at Bacchus Marsh. I met with some Burmese refugees who had been accepted as permanent residents. They were very fortunate compared to the more recent arrivals. They were working now as part of a social enterprise and were contributing to the country. They were growing vegetables. They were doing that with the support of the local church community and a local person who had donated land on the fertile river flats of the Werribee River at Bacchus Marsh to help this group of refugees, who are largely Burmese but who are also from other parts of the country. They were showing that Australians do have a heart.

The refugees were contributing to part of the community. They really want to establish their roots there. I think the fact that they were growing vegetables on the bank of the river showed that here they were establishing their roots, they had their kids going to local schools and they were on their way to becoming productive and happy Australians like the rest of us. In Australia, as a culture and as a country, we have people from all over the world. Our culture is based on contributions from people from all over the world, so many of them refugees. Our national anthem says, 'We’ve boundless plains to share'—accepting people and knowing that the can contribute to our diverse multicultural country. This is the sort of approach and the sort of culture that is being so compromised and so attacked by this cruel and heartless legislation.

From Bacchus Marsh, I moved on to Ballarat. I was very fortunate to be in Ballarat at the launch of World Refugee Week, where I met with refugees from Sri Lanka and from Sierra Leone. I met with a young man from Africa who was now the Young Citizen of the Year in Ballarat. He had arrived from war-torn Africa and was now able to contribute to Australia.

The Sri Lankan refugees were in a more difficult situation. I met with a number of them who were on bridging visas at that stage. They wanted to talk to me about how we could help them, because all they wanted to do was to settle down and to help—to be part of Australia and to contribute to a vibrant, prosperous and healthy Australia, and to be recognised for the contributions that they were able to make. They told me their stories, about what they have escaped from. That is the really sobering thing for me and for us here, who have the opportunity to be living good lives. The refugees that we are talking about are people who, through no fault of the own, are suffering. They have suffered torture, they have seen the death and the murder, in many instances, of friends, family and people around them. They have taken any opportunity, as you and I would, to flee for their lives. If we put ourselves in the shoes of these people and think about the choices—the choice of being shot or of taking any opportunity to escape, or taking any opportunity to save your children to give your children the opportunity of a good life—we would take that opportunity. That is the choice that people have had, regardless of how they have tried to come to Australia.

I moved on in my journey to Canberra, from Ballarat to Shepparton. In Shepparton I met a group of approximately 60 Hazara men. I had said that I was interested in meeting with some of the local Hazara community living in regional areas and I offered to meet with them. I expected that we would have around perhaps a dozen men and women who might like to meet with me. I arrived at the community hall where the meeting had been arranged and there were 60 of Hazara men wanting to talk to me, to tell me their stories and to see whether I could help them. Most of these men were on bridging visas. They did not have the opportunity to work or study, and they did not have the opportunity to bring their families out who they knew were still in very dire circumstances in their home countries of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

All they wanted was the opportunity to contribute; all they wanted was the opportunity to settle down, to work, to raise their families and to know that they have the certainty of being able to be Australian residents permanently. Like many refugees before them, the expectation would be that if things calm down in Afghanistan, as we all hope that one day they may, they would be able to move backwards and forwards but still be able to come back to Australia. They would be able to see themselves as global citizens moving backwards and forwards, as is the case in our modern society. But, no, the circumstances they were in and the circumstances they will continue to be in, even if they are offered one of these temporary protection visas, are such that they will not have that ability. They will not have the rights they deserve and that we should be able to offer people because of what they can contribute to Australia, which can offer them safety and refuge.

Finally, the next group of refugees that I met was when I was in Albury-Wodonga. There were some members of the African community there but I also met with the Albury-Wodonga community group that was working with them—welcoming them to their community—and supporting them as being part of the community. Meeting that group of people really gave me heart, because here—like all over Australia—there were people in rural Australia who were reaching out. They recognise the contributions that refugees from all over the world are able to make to their community and they were welcoming them into their community. They wanted them to have the same rights and opportunities as other Australians. This very cruel bill is not going to give people those opportunities.

If passed, this bill is going to widen the immigration minister's powers. It is going to marginalise international law and the rules of natural justice, and it is going to severely restrict the ability of Australian courts to scrutinise the government's treatment of asylum seekers. The title of the bill—I referred at the beginning to the complex legalese—refers to the 'legacy caseload'. That is the 30,000 people, including the Hazara men I met in Shepparton, who sought Australia's protection between August 2012 and December 2013, who have suffered the physical and mental anguish of mandatory detention, family separation, absolute uncertainty about their legal status and the constant risk of removal to Nauru and Manus Island. Again, referring to the people I have met and the people I have known who are in this circumstance, I can attest to the mental anguish, the depression that they feel because they just do not have the certainty of knowing whether they are going to be able to stay, that they feel because they are unable to sleep at night, that they feel because they do not know what their future holds. The whole concept of only giving people temporary protection feeds into that. We as a country are better than that. We can be giving these people permanent protection. It is good for refugees and is good for us as Australians.

To quote the New South Wales Bar Association, the bill:

… goes far beyond what is necessary to deal with any "legacy caseload" the. It involves serious departures from Australia’s international obligations, both as to human rights and more generally. To the extent that the Bill does deal with the "legacy caseload", it does so in a way which is procedurally unfair and unjust.

The process for us to consider this legislation today is so inappropriate, given the severity of the legislation. The significance of the changes proposed in this bill should not be understated. Along with the other bills before parliament, this bill constitutes the single biggest change to Australia's asylum seeker policy ever made and it is being rammed through here on this last day of sitting on the basis of a blackmail deal which says 'if you support this bill 500 children will be able to leave Christmas Island.' This is not good process. It is not good law-making. It is not the sort of process that I thought I would be part of when I joined the Senate.

The bill's six schedules will fundamentally change the way that protection claims are assessed. The bill changes the criteria 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 also changes the legal status of those seeking our protection and empowers a range of government agencies to restrict or remove their liberty. In each schedule, the bill removes the rare existing features of the Migration Act that operate to protect the rights and interests of asylum seekers. They have not got many rights but this bill removes the rights they have in favour of a system that departs from international law and the principles of the rule of law. One of the very sad things about this is that, on Australia's contribution as a global citizen and living up to international law, we are departing from that and sending ourselves down a very sorry slope. Australia is better than that and most Australians consider that that is not the direction that they want to see Australia taking. This bill will have a really ruthless impact on the lives, health and wellbeing of the 30,000 men, women and children who will be subject to it.

Other Greens speakers, including Senator Hanson-Young, have spoken of the brutal changes being proposed in schedule 6, which, chillingly, are going to classify children born in Australia to asylum seeker parents by the deliberately depersonalising and Orwellian term 'unauthorised maritime arrivals' and leave these babies, these children, stateless. These are children like yours and like mine. The beginning of these children's life is going to give them such handicaps to overcome, when we could be offering these children, these babies, a good life here in Australia. They could be kids like the kids my children went to school with, from all over the world, who we know we are offering security, support and the ability to contribute to Australian society. Once these stateless babies, these unauthorised maritime arrivals, have been declared as such they are required to be detained and transferred to Nauru. We have seen the conditions on Nauru. We have seen the cruel treatment of asylum seekers on Nauru. This government is going to continue to hold children in those cruel, heartless circumstances that we know are going to have a long-term impact on and long-term implications for the mental health of the children and the adults who are living there.

This bill also, astoundingly, removes references to the refugees convention from the Migration Act and replaces them with the government's own interpretation of the convention. These changes allow Australia to turn its back on the document that 145 nations have signed up to as a legal framework for the international protection of refugees. The measures in this bill have been condemned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights as being contrary to international law. They allow the minister to decide the definition of a 'refugee', and there will be no review of that allowed. This is not good law. This go-it-alone approach has implications for any attempt Australia might make in future to engage the countries of our region in cooperating to address issues around processing and resettling asylum seekers. How can we possibly persuade other countries to fulfil their international obligations when our own actions show that we are prepared to manipulate and undermine an important international convention? Our hypocrisy will be seen for what it is.

As I have already discussed, the bill proposes to introduce temporary protection visas and the safe haven enterprise visas. These visas only last for three or four years. They limit family reunion and require people found to be genuine refugees—people who arrive genuinely seeking protection because of persecution—to continually establish their internationally recognised right to protection just because of the way they entered Australia. As Save the Children has explained, TPVs will mean people fleeing persecution are left in limbo—forced to prove and re-prove that they are refugees. The emotional and mental cost of such uncertainty is enormous and well documented. Again, it does not have to be this way. It is a choice of this parliament, if this bill ends up being supported, to make it that way. The reintroduction of these visas is being pursued in the face of a significant body of medical evidence which shows the detrimental effects that TPVs have on people's mental health and in blatant disregard of the actual facts. They are hateful, punitive things.

The policy settings that existed the last time that TPVs were introduced have fundamentally changed. None of the deterrence based arguments apply anymore. We do not need temporary protection visas. This is because TPVs cannot possibly be seen as a deterrent to the 30,000 asylum seekers already in Australia, whose only other options are to return to a place of harm or face indefinite detention. Nor can TPVs be considered a deterrent to any future asylum seekers arriving by boat, because, if they are intercepted, they must be removed to Nauru or Manus Island, and will never be offered a TPV.

This bill also removes fundamental procedural rights to safeguard the integrity of what can be a life-or-death decision about a person's need for protection. It does this by introducing a new fast-track procedure and by establishing the Immigration Assessment Authority to deal with the claims of asylum seekers who have arrived by sea in Australia without visas on or after 13 August 2012. This fast-track process only gives asylum seekers one go at setting out the evidence needed to substantiate their protection claim to an immigration official. It does not provide them with any access to independent advice or support. It flies in the face of what is recognised as good procedural and good legal practice. A woman fleeing politically motivated sexual violence, for example, will be required to assemble evidence to substantiate her claim without any expert help or support. And she will only have limited time to do this. We are better than this. This is not the rule of law that we should have in an advanced, caring country like Australia.

To make things worse, under the fast-track process applicants for protection visas will no longer be entitled to have the merits of their claims reviewed by the Refugee Review Tribunal. In some cases, but not all, they may be able to have a negative decision fast-tracked by the Immigration Assessment Authority, but that review will not involve a hearing where the applicant can set out his or her claim for protection. The decision will have to be made purely on the papers; the applicant will not be interviewed or have the opportunity to comment on an application. The applicant will not be allowed to provide new information or evidence, except where exceptional circumstances exist. This is extraordinarily bad. It is undermining the whole nature of what it means to be a caring country and a caring Australia that has international obligations. It is not consistent with the obligations which, when we signed up to the refugee convention all those years ago, we said we were going to comply with. It is not the Australia that I want to live in. I know it is not the Australia that thousands and thousands of people who have spoken to us want to live in. It is something that really needs to be rejected.

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