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Speech: Asylum Bill inflicts cruelty, could result in death, and breaks the law

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Lee Rhiannon 4 Dec 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (18:00): This bill should not pass. We have heard some very good contributions detailing the horrors that would occur if it were to become law. I congratulate my colleague Senator Sarah Hanson-Young for the work that she has done over many years on this issue, bringing the voices of refugee advocates and human rights activists into this chamber and representing the rights of refugees in such a clear, articulate way. I also draw the attention of my colleagues in this place and others who read Hansard or who are listening to this debate to the speech of Senator Christine Milne, the Leader of the Australian Greens. She made a very telling speech in which she set out the crimes that are embodied in this legislation. She particularly nailed the issue that there are, embodied in this legislation, crimes against humanity. We need to realise how incredibly serious this legislation is.

A large number of legal and human rights experts have warned how dangerous the legislation would be if it is passed. I do not support the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014. Just the title, 'resolving the asylum legacy caseload': this does not resolve the caseload; it inflicts cruelty, it could result in death, it breaks the law. It should not be passed. Refugees are essentially being used as an electoral football here. We have seen this occur under the Liberal and National parties for years now, where refugees and asylum seekers are demonised. The issue is played out particularly when we are coming into elections, when there is such a carry-on about people seeking asylum in this country. People do become fearful. They do start to worry about what is happening with our borders, but it is because of the hysterical, extreme way that people in the government present this issue.

I do acknowledge that there have been and are some individual MPs and members of the Liberal and National parties who do not hold the views of the Abbott government. However, we need to acknowledge that the Liberals and Nationals, whether in opposition or in government, are driving a very ugly policy process and are pushing forward with laws that will do such deep damage not just to individuals but to the very fabric of our country. The harshness and cruelty of this bill are so extreme. If this bill passes, and I understand that a deal has been done, there will be an absolute shift by the Australian government. Senators who are considering voting for this need to recognise what they will be voting for. They will be voting to trash respect for the law; they will be voting to trash recognition of the rights of refugees. What this bill will essentially do if it is passed is to establish in law the mistreatment of asylum seekers and refugees who have left their countries, where they have faced death, rape, imprisonment, persecution and torture. It will now be very easy to return those people to those terrible threats. This is how far this government is considering going with this legislation.

We know it does not have to be like this. Many of us here would remember the 1980s and the 1990s, when the issue of refugee rights and asylum seekers in this country occupied barely any space in our media. It is worth reflecting on why that was the case. It was the case because there was a bipartisan approach, with Labor and the coalition at that time largely working together for a humane approach to people who had every right to come to this country to seek asylum. So many refugees were processed quickly and in a way that their safety was not in jeopardy and they were able to rebuild their lives in Australia.

I want to share with the Senate tonight some comments by former Prime Minister Fraser which he made at the 2012 Whitlam Oration. It really does give detail about how this developed. The period he is describing in the first instance is the aftermath of the Vietnam War-a war that was very divisive in Australia. Despite that, the leaders of the two major parties at the time came together with a humane and largely successful approach to handling people who were coming to this country. These are the words of Mr Fraser:

At the end of the Vietnam War, tens upon tens of thousands of Indo-Chinese sought to flee to safety. Initially the Whitlam Government decision was to have limited numbers of people from Vietnam. My Government made the decision to take large numbers of people. Gough Whitlam did not play politics with this. It would have been easy to do. Instead he led his party to fully accept the convention of the post war years. Bipartisanship on issues of immigration was maintained. This bipartisanship was fundamentally important. It shows that political conflict can live alongside the sustaining of a shared, deep respect for people regardless of colour, race or religion, a belief that people should be respected for who they are. The capacity to engage in conflict and maintain such a respect depends on a degree of consensus between political leaders. Gough Whitlam and I participated in this consensus.
If instead of this consensus, the disgraceful race to the bottom of the populist political point scoring of recent years had prevailed, the cost to Australia would have been enormous.
I do say that that is a most significant quote and I urge senators to read all of Mr Fraser's speech. I do want to share one other aspect of another comment that he made in that speech, because it brings us forward to recent times:

Before Tampa there would have been many who accepted that the idea of the White Australia Policy was dead and that those who supported racism had no influence. Since Tampa, despite the great and beneficial diversity of people within Australia today, there are many who interpret our attitude to refugees, and the toxic and demeaning debates that have taken place over this question, as a resurgence of racism.
Those were Mr Fraser's words: 'resurgence of racism'. He went on to say:

Our treatment of refugees, and the poisonous debate engaged in by our major political parties has done Australia much harm throughout our region.
This is where we are today, with a resurgence of racism and the harm done within our own region; and it is actually now beyond that. Mr Fraser's speech was from two years ago.

We now have a very bad name around the world because of the way we are treating refugees. It is a shameful period in our history, and if this bill goes through it will be much more shameful. The indignity, the abuse and the cruelty of this bill is encompassed in the reintroduction of temporary protection visas. This means that refugees will have to prove and re-prove that they are refugees. Think of our daily lives: our freedoms, our rights, the pleasures we take and how we are able to hang out with our families and our friends, largely when we wish-when we get out of this place-we can visit our special places and we can work. But for those on temporary protection visas, those basic rights and the things that we take for granted are not there. Let us remember that Australia has tried this before, so we know of the cruelty this brings-the anguish and the emotional and mental cost. People do not know their future, are left in limbo and are unable to reunite with their families. This is what we are about to impose on people.

When the history of our country is written this period will shock people; when they read what this country and successive governments, both Labor and coalition, inflicted on people who have every right under international law to come here. What will deserve special treatment and will so deeply shock people is temporary protection visas. This is so ugly. I am still shocked that I live in a country like this. Obviously, with my politics there is a lot that I have disagreed with, but I never thought that either side of politics would get to the point where they would treat people like this.

It is understandable that people ask what we should do: we should recognise that seeking asylum is a humanitarian issue rather than an issue of border security or defence, and that people seeking asylum must be treated with compassion and dignity. Considering what this bill does, we need to remember that as a signatory to the refugee convention Australia should assess the applications of all asylum seekers who arrive in our territory, including our territorial waters, irrespective of their mode of arrival. We also need to recognise that Australia has additional responsibilities to refugees from countries where Australian defence personnel have been deployed in conflict situations. Clearly there is a link there, and it is something that we should recognise. We should work to settle people quickly. This is what we need so that people can rebuild their lives, gain work, find a home, study and do all of the things that people have the right to do.

The figures show how unnecessary temporary protection visas are. When we had them before, some 95 per cent of people on TPVs the first time around ended up with permanent protection. That speaks volumes-95 per cent of those people who were put through such humiliating processes and had to live in such a degrading way, were given permanent protection and are part of our society now. There is no reason to believe this statistic would be any different now.

We particularly need to give consideration when debating this bill to the role of the minister. He has quite rightly figured strongly in this debate because the bill gives unacceptable power to the immigration minister. I think we should be asking, 'Why?' The minister will be able to make life-and-death decisions about individual refugee cases. This means that the chance of people being sent back to a situation of grave danger, or even death, is a real possibility. Imagine this: this bill denies even babies born on Australian soil-in Australia, here-to parents who arrived by boat, any protection. They will effectively be rendered stateless. Again, there are so many aspects of this bill that shocks and then shocks again and again and again. These babies will be retained offshore until they are forced to go to a place like Nauru.

The changes to the definition of 'refugee' is one of the most despicable aspects of the bill. So much flows from this abuse that is set out in the law in this bill. This change means it will be easier to send more people back to where they came from, to where they could be abused, tortured or killed. We do not offer them assistance and we do not offer them protection. We take actions that will lead to harm. The power the minister will have is so troubling. We have the scenario that if the department asserts that a refugee can simply 'modify their behaviour'-they are the words: 'modify their behaviour'-to avoid persecution or harm at home, then they will be sent back. What a flimsy policy! 'Flimsy' is too light a word. What an outrageous and cruel policy! The people who are making this assessment will either be told what they have to do in making those assessments to approve as few refugees as possible, or they will just know that that is what their job really hinges on: to send, by far, the majority of people back. That is the situation we are facing.

Then there is the issue of travel documents. It is quite understandable that so many asylum seekers arrive with no papers. That has been the case forever with refugee asylum seekers. That is the nature of escaping from the abuse that they have experienced. Having no travel documents can now be used against them. It can mean, in fact, that they are knocked back.

Let's reflect on history here. Let's remember people fleeing from Nazi Germany or at the end of the Vietnam War or from Pinochet's Chile. All of those times in our history come to mind. I believe that so many of those people would have escaped with no papers. At those times, we did the right thing. We assisted those people. We assisted them to settle and to rebuild their lives in Australia. So many of those people have gone on to have wonderful lives here and to be a very rich and important part of our society. But we do not do that now. We need to ask: how many of the people who will come here now will be treated like we have treated people in the past who had every right to come to our country? I fear under Minister Morrison and under the Abbot government, no matter who the minister is, very few people in a situation similar to those escaping from Pinochet's Chile, Vietnam post 1975 or Nazi Germany will be treated in the same way.

It comes to this point: how extreme does this government want to be? It already has very tough legislation in place. It is already loaded against refugees. Now it wants to be so much more extreme. The current Migration Act has a very tough process to check if asylum seekers should be given protection. Asylum seekers will now, however, face a minimalist process that will determine issues of life and death. Some call it a 'fast-track' process, but for most of them it is a fast-track process back to misery. It is essentially about accepting minimal numbers of refugees.

Consider the state so many people are in when they arrive here. They are frightened and intimidated. They are particularly often intimidated by authority. And who do they had to deal with when they come here? It is military people. I know that many of those military people are absolutely trying to do their best, but put yourself in the minds of these people who are coming here. So often they have fled authority and military people and then they have to adjust to the situation that confronts them when they first arrive. Then they face department representatives who have been told what the minister expects from them. That is going to be set out very clearly. Again, I repeat: many of them will know, even if they are not told how many to not approve, that that is what the minister wants. That will be the culture. That will be the intent. That is how this bill will play out for the people who have to put it into effect.

Asylum seekers will, in the main, have to quickly assemble their case with no legal assistance. That is the other aspect of this. How hard will that be? They will be confronted by a new range of authorities and they will have to try to articulate their case. They may have no travel papers and no legal assistance.

On top of this abuse of process and abuse of people, this bill gives the government the power to disregard whether someone is at risk of torture. Can you imagine that? I have often felt a characteristic of our society is that we recognise that torture is wrong, that it is a criminal act, that one needs to speak out and highlight what regimes engage in torture and that we need to assist people who have escaped from that. But here we have a government with the power to disregard whether somebody would be at risk of torture if they returned. Again, it is one of those aspects that I find so hard to believe-that the government wants to make torture effectively irrelevant when it comes to determining the status of asylum seekers.

Another horror aspect of this bill is that it is designed to put the government's actions above international maritime law. This will allow the minister and future ministers to force people on boats back to the country they have left without any court oversight. Again, this is a real abuse of process and our obligations under international law. I have set out the case in a very thorough way-and many of my colleagues have too-why this bill should not be passed.

I want to touch on the fact that there is also the very ugly aspect of how so much of this work has been outsourced to a private company, Serco. That deserves a mention here because, every time the law gets worse in this place, Serco, a private company, makes more profit. That is now on the record. It is a British multinational. It is in financial trouble. Significantly, the company which is favoured by our government and by governments in other countries as well to lock up refugees has admitted that it is its Australian detention operations that are effectively keeping it afloat. It is in financial difficulties, and we now have private companies that, based on cruelty, are profiting from the misery of people who our country, our government and our departments should be working with to help them rebuild their lives. This bill should not pass. It will be a shameful day if it does.


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