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Senate Speech, Migration Legislation Amendment Bill 2012, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, 16 August 2012

Speeches in Parliament
Sarah Hanson-Young 16 Aug 2012

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (09:31):  I rise today to speak to the bill currently before this chamber, the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012, that proposes to dump vulnerable men, women and children anywhere but here-a proposal put forward by this government that trashes Australia's obligations under international law and, of course, our obligations under the refugee convention. I note that, interestingly, overnight the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, has reminded Australia that our obligations are not optional. Ban Ki-Moon is calling on Australia to do what it is that we have signed up to do: to treat people with dignity, respect, care and compassion when they arrive on our shores desperate for protection and safety.

Australia was the sixth country to sign and ratify the refugee convention in 1954 under Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies. In Geneva on 22 January 1954 Australia's representative to the United Nations called it the Magna Carta of the refugee. He said, 'I am glad now to offer further evidence of our compassionate concern with this problem by formally stating our binding adherence to a convention which will elevate the standard of treatment of refugees to the status of international legal obligation.' Erika Feller, the UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, has said that this convention is the wall behind which refugees can shelter. The importance of this convention and Australia's adherence to its obligations are highly understood by Australians, by members in this place and by the international community.

The reason we are even having this debate on this piece of legislation is because we have vulnerable people fleeing persecution and brutality from places around the world. I want to give you a quick snapshot of one young man who is now living in Melbourne, Hatif, who had to flee the brutality of the Taliban in Afghanistan. He came to Australia seeking our protection and our help. Hatif was 15 when his father was killed by the Taliban. His father was an interpreter for the coalition forces in Afghanistan. His father worked with our own officers, our own brave men and women, in Afghanistan so that they could understand the language, the messages and the important discussions that were being held Afghanistan. His father acted as our interpreter to the local administration of the leaders in Afghanistan. For that, it cost him a very high price: his father was killed by the Taliban. And the Taliban left a note on his father's body saying that his teenage son would be next.

Hatif speaks very good English, and being the son of an English interpreter who had worked for the armed forces in Afghanistan made him a direct target once his father had been killed. His mother, sadly, realised that she would have to get Hatif out of Afghanistan if he was to survive. He was detained on Christmas Island after arriving in Australia by boat. He is now doing brilliantly at a local school in Melbourne-he is the top of the class in specialist maths and IT. He wants to be an engineer for Australia, but he desperately misses his family. I have written to the minister about Hatif, about the fact that his family cannot arrive here because there is no effective family reunion for him. Regardless of the fact that he had no choice but to flee his country, the minister's bill is going to make it even harder for Hatif and people like him to seek the protection they deserve, the protection they need.

We have a debate in this country about the pull and push factors. The push factors are the persecutions, the brutality and the torture that the individual refugees have to flee. The pull factor is that Australia is a signatory to the refugee convention which, when we signed in 1954 under the Menzies government, we proudly stood by and said that it was because we understood compassion was important. That is the pull factor-that Australians live proudly in a fair country where we look after one another, where the vulnerable have a safety net. That is the pull factor in this debate.

The deterrence is the awful decision that refugees make to flee their homelands in the first place and take that dangerous journey. The deterrent is having to make the decision to leave, however that is done, whether in the dead of night or in the morning, and whether you take your family with you, where you go, who will accept you and what is the best avenue for safety. Having to make that decision to leave your home, your family, your community is the deterrent.

Unfortunately we have got ourselves into an awful state of affairs where both sides of this place and the other have locked themselves into a delusion that if we can deter refugees from seeking protection that somehow that relieves us of our obligations to help others. When there are no durable solutions for refugees, when there is no ability for safety after they have left their homelands, refugees will continue to flee and they will continue to run until they feel safe. Pakistan, where many of the Afghan refugees have been hiding in fear of the Taliban, is pushing those refugees back. They are no longer safe in Pakistan and they move on to the next place. They move to Malaysia, they move to Europe, they move to Indonesia.

In our region there is no protection for these people under law except for those countries that have signed the refugee convention. Many of the people are not even able to come to Australia by plane because we do not offer them visas to get here. If you are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran or from Syria, the government believes that you are at high risk of applying for asylum and you will not be given a visa to fly into this country. Our whole policy is designed to force people onto boats. The government does not want to talk about that because they would prefer to have the tussle with the opposition about deterring people who need our help from even asking for it. That is what this whole debate is about. We do not want these refugees here. That is what the minister's legislation says. It is what John Howard's legislation said. John Howard said that he wanted the right to decide who came into this country and the means by which they came. This legislation says that the government will decide, and if you are a refugee coming by boat you will not be allowed into this country. This is John Howard's legislation, make no mistakes about it.

There are a lot of mistruths about this issue. I heard the leader of the chamber here from the opposition, Senator Abetz, say yesterday that there is a 'tsunami' of refugees coming to Australia. That is a lie. It is not true. He knows that it is not true. Australia takes less than two per cent of the world's refugees. There is no tsunami. There are a number of boats of very poor, desperate people who have been forced to take that journey because they have no other, safer option.

The expert panel asked for submissions from experts in this field, and they got submission after submission after submission that outlined what could be done to save lives now. We need to be looking at what worked in the Fraser government years. We need to be looking at how at that very particular time-and there were many, many more people desperate for protection in our region-we managed their needs from a humanitarian perspective. We assessed people's claims effectively where they were with a commitment to take those who genuinely needed our help. We did not wait for them to board a dangerous leaky boat only then to be shunted off out of sight out of mind because the reality was we never wanted them here anyway. We had true leadership that said Australia is a signatory to the refugee convention and we will abide by our obligations. We would work with our regional neighbours to assess people's claims and keep them safe while that application process was undertaken, and then welcome them into our communitieWe asked other countries to take them too. They went to Canada and the United States, and many, many of them came to Australia.

We took tens of thousands Vietnamese refugees back in those days because it was the right thing to do. The members of this place had the courage to do the right thing.

This bill that is currently before this chamber has nothing of our courage in it at all. It lacks courage, but is all about cruelty; it lacks compassion, but is all about harm; and it lacks decency, but is all based on a lie that these people do not have rights, that they are not our responsibility and that if we be as mean as we possibly can that will deter them. It is simply not the truth.

The countries from which these people are fleeing are places like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka and, increasingly, Syria. These are people who we know are fleeing places where they are brutalised-places of persecution. They are not here simply because they thought it was the easy option. It is the hard option; it is a hard thing to decide to leave your family, to leave your community, to leave your home and to flee in fear of your life. That is not an easy option. That takes courage, that takes bravery and that takes a commitment to humanity-to save the lives of your family.

They are the people who, over the generations, have made this country great. People who understood hardship, loyalty and resilience. These are the people who have built this country, who have contributed so much to this country and who will continue to do so. When young Hatif becomes an engineer he will be a fine engineer. He will probably be rebuilding the infrastructure that this country desperately needs for the future, because he understands loyalty, commitment and hard work.

The Houston report included many important recommendations, none of which this government or the opposition have said any word of since Monday. Where is the commitment to increase our refugee intake immediately? Where is the plan to resettle those who have been waiting for years in Indonesia? Where in this legislation is our commitment to upholding our commitment under the convention to treat people properly, to ensure that they are housed appropriately, to ensure that they have access to legal assistance and to ensure that we do not detain children? None of that stuff, none of those important safeguards which are listed in the Houston report, are in this legislation. The government says that they are implementing the Houston report and they have not even bothered to read the detail of the recommendations.

We can be doing things now to save people's lives. Those who submitted to the Houston panel said it very clearly: increase the ability to assess people's claims and give them an opportunity to apply for protection in Australia in the places where they are. We know they are in Malaysia and we know they are in Indonesia; commit to doing that there and bring them safely to Australia. This debate has become riddled with this issue of saving lives at sea. If we were saving lives at sea we would be bringing these people safely to our shores. We would be giving them an opportunity to apply for protection safely in the places where they are waiting, scared, frightened, helpless and desperate. And yet that is not what this legislation is about. This is going back to the horrors that we know happened in Nauru and Manus Island. It is not by staring into the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup that we know these things will happen, because they have happened before.

Mr Deputy President, before I wrap-up I will table these really important pictures that were drawn by children last time they were detained on Nauru. Indefinite detention damages children, indefinite detention violates children's rights and indefinite detention kills people. This legislation will not save lives; this legislation will kill people. It will send brave, courageous and resilient people insane. We know it will because it did last time. Rather than learning from the mistakes of the past and learning from what worked in history, like the leadership that was taken by the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, this government have lost their way. This government have lost their moral compass. This government are doing what Tony Abbott asked for, and Tony Abbott cannot be trusted on people's human rights. Tony Abbott wants to be as cruel as possible to the most vulnerable people who reach our shores. I condemn the bill, and we will not be supporting it in this place.

I seek leave to table the documents I referred to.

Leave granted.

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