I am the great grandson of a boat person (23/09/2011)

03 January 2013

IAsylum-Seekers.jpgam the great grandson of a boat person and an illegal immigrant. He was a Swedish seaman who jumped ship in Albany in the 1890s to try his luck in the goldfields of Kalgoorlie.

As matters happened he did not have much luck and he found his way east and worked on the wharves there for the remainder of his working life.

He made a great contribution as I would argue his offspring have made a great contribution to this country.

The issue of migration is no less vexed a debate today as it was when Gustaf Carlson jumped ship in the 1890s.

As a wealthy democracy and an active member of the international community Australia has a duty at home and abroad, a duty to uphold our obligations under international law, a duty to ensure we carry our fair share of the burden when it comes to helping and resettling people who are fleeing persecution in their country of origin and a duty to ensure that when we accept people as refugees we help them integrate into the Australian community.

Further, we have a duty here as parliamentarians and leaders in the Australian community to ensure that we lead a debate that is based on facts and values not on fallacy and fear.

We are lucky that in the 100 years since Federation we have never had to face a civil war. While we have on several occasions had to repel attempts at invasion, including the bombing of Darwin, the overwhelming majority of Australians have not had to witness the sorts of wars and conflicts that cause so many to flee their homes and seek sanctuary in another place.

Perhaps if we had we might think and talk differently about this matter.

Despite our relative isolation, Australian governments have played an important part in crafting the international arrangements to deal with human rights and refugees.

Australian Labor has been at the forefront at this.

As Australia's Minister for External Affairs, Doc Evatt worked with Jessie Street to found the United Nations. They were at the centre of the negotiations, the drafting and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Doc Evatt was President of the General Assembly of the United Nations when it adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which, in article 14, says: 'Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.'

In the aftermath of World War II the international community decided that in times of civil war, persecution, and ethnic cleansing special conventions were needed to protect vulnerable minorities such as children, Indigenous people and refugees.

In the wake of the holocaust that preceded the agreement we realised that any of us could some day be in need of shelter.

In July 1951 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and on 22 January 1954 the Menzies government ratified it.

Australia's signing to that convention was the trigger point that made the refugee convention operative as an international treaty.

I entered this debate calling for more facts, less fallacy and a bit more perspective.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, at the end of 2010 there were 43.7 million people of concern, including 10.6 million in the care of UNHCR and another 4.8 million Palestinian refugees in care.

As an island nation that gave protection to the people of East Timor and Vietnam we do know that asylum seekers generally look for protection in their region of origin. Seventy-five per cent of all refugees reside in countries neighbouring their own country.

In 2011 there are 500,000 refugees needing permanent resettlement but only 100,000 resettlement places available. Of the 10.6 million refugees currently in the care of UNHCR 80 per cent have sanctuary in developing countries.

Many Australians may be surprised to learn that Pakistan, one of those developing countries, hosts both the most refugees, 1. 9 million, and the most compared with the size of its national economy. The second prize goes to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and third prize to Kenya.

In 2010 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees put it succinctly. He said:

Over half of the refugees for whom UNHCR is responsible live in protracted situations. There are 25 such situations today, in 21 countries. This burden is borne disproportionately by the developing world, where four-fifths of all refugees live. Combined with the continuing impact of the global financial and economic crisis, the resources of host countries are under serious strain ... A new deal on burden-sharing is essential to ensure that the generosity of host countries and communities is matched by solidarity from the developed world.

In absolute terms, some of the poorest and most politically volatile countries host the largest refugee populations. These include Iran, Syria, Kenya and Chad. Not all of these countries have signed the refugee convention yet they are, by far, carrying the greatest burden of hosting refugees on our troubled globe.

They have limited resources to deal with large inflows of displaced people that put additional pressures on their weak governance structures and fragile political situations. Despite these social and political pressures, these countries honour the spirit of the refugee convention by allowing people to stay in their territories until more durable solutions are found.

For its part, Australia has settled around 700,000 refugees since the Second World War. Asylum seekers represent only two per cent of Australia's annual migration intake. A little over 8,000 people claimed asylum in Australia in 2010, amounting to a little over one per cent of the global total.

Most asylum seekers arrive in Australia by air. From 2001 to 2010 boat arrivals accounted for 24 per centthat is, less than one-quarter of Australia's total asylum claims.

While Australia has had an increase in the absolute number of asylum seekers it receives, it is still far below those recorded by other industrialised countries.

I paint this picture quite simply to make the point that Australia can and should do more.

I welcome the fact that the agreement that we have reached with Malaysia will lead to an increase in our refugee intake. I would like to think that it is the first instalment in what we can and should do as a wealthy nation, a democratic nation and a civilised nation in a troubled world and region.

I would like to talk about the values that should underscore our actions in this area.I do not believe that on this issue there are any moral absolutes.

I do believe, however, that our actions should reflect our values, and that we must be able to clearly articulate this both as a party in this place and to the nation.

For Labor, our actions must stem from our proud history as trailblazers and as innovators.

We must be willing to stand on the shoulders of men and women like Doc Evatt and Jessie Street, and like the architect of our post-war migration program, Arthur Calwell.

We must be able to say that what we are doing is consistent with our Labor heritage.

The core Labor values of fairness and equity must form the bedrock of this approach. It should build on our history of leading the nation.

I have already said that I do not believe that it is fair that this country, a country that is so relatively wealthy when compared to our regional neighbours, should do proportionately less when it comes to refugee intake.

This, quite simply, is not equitable.

I further argue that we should not lay out a process that has the effect of giving preference to those who can pay over those who cannot, whether that payment is by way of a plane ticket or a ticket on a boat.

This, I argue, is not consistent with the Labor way, to give preference to those who can afford to pay over those who cannot.

Nor should we give preference to men over women in our refugee intake.

We should be able to determine the regions from which we take our refugees and where we think they may best be settled and form an important part of the Australian community.

These are all principles that I argue are consistent with Labor values. It is critical that we in this place are able to articulate this clearly to the Australian community.

The final observation that I wish to make goes to the quality of public debate and our obligations to lead.

Many who have contributed to this debate so far have used the unfortunate language of 'solution'. I find that incredibly offensive and politically misleading.

It is historically problematic, and that is a point that I should not have to labour to any in this place. But it is also incredibly politically misleading because it lifts the bar so high.

Whether the former government or the current government, neither of us can argue that we have a final solution that would put the barriers up and prevent anybody from coming to this great country of ours. That is not true.

It is hardly surprising that a country which is as wonderful as ours, situated in such a troubled region, will be an attractive place for anybody to come. Try as we may, there is no ultimate barrier which will prevent that. We can put policies in place which may enable us to control it, but there is no ultimate bulwark.

Can I say something about the notion of deterrence, because that has been at the centre of this debate as well?

There are many things we can do to deter people from coming here. Our obligation as parliamentarians is to ensure that what we do is moral and consistent with our values. There is no shortage of things that we could do to deter people coming to Australia, I am sure. Most of them could not be contemplated in this place.

It is said, and I believe it, that the purpose of the deterrence value of the Malaysian arrangement is that it negates the purpose of the journey in the first place, the importance of Malaysia being that this is often the first point of departure for people in transit from Afghanistan, Pakistan and places within that region.

It is argued, and I believe it, that if people are returned to Malaysia as a part of this process then it negates the arrangement that put them there in the first place.

The same cannot be argued for Nauru. The deterrence value of Nauru is quite simply that it tortures those who make the journey. It does not return them to the place of their original departure, it simply locks them up on an island isolated from the rest of the world.

It leaves them there with very little control over their future and very little certainty. It tortures those who have made the journey, and if we are to believe the history of those who found their way to Nauru under the policies of the previous government, around 68 per cent of those were ultimately resettled in Australia and around 95 per cent of those were resettled either in Australia or in New Zealand.

It was a tortuous arrangement, and it was a solution to nothing. It was barbaric in most regards and ultimately it did not stop the people. If we are to accept the arguments, and I do, that are put to us by those who have spent most of their lives operating in this area, the advice that was given to our government and which was provided to the Leader of the Opposition was that even if some were to accept that Nauru ever did work that it is within the wit and will of those who ply their trade in people smuggling to work out exactly what went on and to put in place arrangements which will negate the effect of it in the future.

I end my contribution to this debate in the place where I started: I think it is critically important that we as parliamentarians fulfil our obligation as leaders to ensure that we have a debate based on facts and values, and that we are able to clearly articulate the values that underpin our policynot a debate which is based on fallacy, on fear, on deception and on opportunism.

We do have an obligation to uphold our duties under international law, a duty to ensure that we carry our fair share of the burden when it comes to helping resettle people in our regionpeople who are fleeing persecution in their country of originand a duty to ensure that we accept people as refugees and do everything that is within our power to ensure that we can integrate them into the Australian community so they can make the contribution that we on this side are confident that they can make, that they have made and that they can continue to make to this great country of ours.

Speech to Federal Parliament on proposed changes to the Migration Act, 22 September 2011