Thursday, 14 May 2009
The rhetoric coming from the opposition in relation to unauthorised boat arrivals and immigration detention has been somewhat surprising. Over the past 10 months I have been working closely on these issues with members of the opposition on the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, which I chair. In December last year the members of the committee, including the shadow minister for immigration, the member for Murray, Sharman Stone, signed off on a report which implicitly endorsed the government’s changes to migration detention policy. The report made a variety of recommendations on how the migration system can be more effective and just, including explicitly supporting the elimination of detention debt since it costs the Australian taxpayer almost as much to collect it as is collected. That did not take into consideration the inhumane consequences for low-income earners who have been granted Australian citizenship of having to pay back massive debts.
The claim that recent changes to the migration policy could increase the number of unauthorised boat arrivals is unfounded. It is external factors such as natural disaster and conflict that are pushing unauthorised boats towards our shores, and people smugglers are exploiting these people in vulnerable situations. There is no evidence to suggest that the previous government’s detention policies were a deterrent to unlawful arrivals. The parliament’s migration committee heard evidence which showed overwhelmingly that refugees fleeing their countries were doing so as a result of extreme situations. Rarely, if ever, did they consider or even know about the detention policy of the host country.
Temporary protection visas were introduced in 1999. There were 3,722 unauthorised boat arrivals in that year. During the next two years, there were 8,459 unauthorised boat arrivals, including 5,520 in 2001. These fluctuations were caused by external factors, not by changes in Australian law. As of 1 May 2009, there are 304 unauthorised boat arrivals in immigration detention. This is not a figure that 21 million Australians should think about when altering the balance of our immigration or refugee policy.
While there has been a lot of fuss following the arrival of several boats, the numbers involved should be put in a global context. Germany, Britain and France are receiving tens of thousands of these people. Most people who claim asylum in Australia actually come by plane, arriving on another type of visa and then applying for asylum. Australia receives only a small fraction of the asylum claims received globally. Australia’s share of the global proportion of those seeking asylum has averaged about 1.5 per cent over the past two decades. The Rudd government was elected on a platform of maintaining strong border protection—reinforced in the budget—and upholding the integrity of our immigration system and ensuring that everyone who tries to enter Australia is processed quickly and treated fairly. That is what the government is doing, and I am confident the Australian people will continue to support this new and more humane, just, rational and effective policy. (Time expired)