COMMITTEES;Migration Committee;Report – 15 Jun 2009

The Joint Standing Committee on Migration is undertaking a broad-ranging inquiry into the integrity of our immigration detention system. The aim of that inquiry is to look constructively to the future and to build a rational and humane immigration detention system, aligning Australia with our obligations under international laws and conventions to which we are a party. I would like to note that this week, 14 June to 20 June, is Refugee Week and that communities across Australia will celebrate their new lives free from fear and persecution. Since November 2007 the Rudd government has moved towards a new policy direction concerning the mandatory detention of unauthorised arrivals.Mandatory detention has been the subject of vigorous debate over many years and ignites great passion in both its supporters and detractors. It is typically viewed by some as a necessary part of maintaining the integrity of Australia’s immigration system and protecting our borders, and by those on the other side of the debate as contrary to the spirit of international refugee law, inhumane and largely ineffective in curbing unauthorised arrivals. Many others argue that the policy has shamed Australia internationally, and that prolonged detention has been psychologically damaging to those in detention, lacking in compassion and unnecessary punitive.

Released last December, the committee’s first report covered the first two terms of reference of the inquiry. They were the criteria that should be applied in determining how long a person should be held in immigration detention and the criteria that should be applied in determining when a person should be released from immigration detention following health and security checks. The committee members achieved a very high level of agreement with this first report, even though a dissenting report was submitted by the member for Kooyong, Senator Alan Eggleston and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young arguing that the government should go further and calling for broader access to judicial review of detention. Overall, though, the committee endorsed the direction that the Rudd government had taken on these issues. In fact recommendation 12 of that report unambiguously supported the Rudd government’s approach to immigration detention reform.

Recommendation 18 of that first report recommended that legislation be introduced to waive all detention charges and debt. The Rudd government quickly responded to that recommendation and introduced the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009 into the Senate on 18 March. In the Treasurer’s budget speech on 12 May, $14 million was allocated to assist voluntary return for those people found not to meet the criteria for entry to Australia, and funds to help assist people granted asylum to adjust were also allocated. These are welcome changes to the government’s policies on immigration detention and take up recommendations of the second report. Indeed this second report considers community based alternatives to detention and examines the conditions and support for release into the community, including appropriate options for community based alternatives to secure detention. The Joint Standing Committee on Migration’s second report inquired into the international experience, considered the manner in which such alternatives may be utilised in Australia to broaden the options available within the current immigration detention framework, and evaluated the cost effectiveness of these alternatives compared to current options.

In our second report we looked into the practicality of releasing people from immigration detention into the community. The committee drew on evidence received in written and oral submissions, by visiting asylum centres and organisations who deal directly with refugees, by talking directly with refugees and by listening to their personal stories. The recommendations we have made take a humane approach to those people who seek protection and, as such, the committee recommends that the government utilise the reformed bridging visa framework in lieu of community detention until a person’s immigration status is resolved.

There are basic rights such as housing and access to health care that all people should have, regardless of their immigration status. We recommend that, where needed, the government provide basic income assistance, access to health care, support and assistance in finding appropriate accommodation and support with appropriate community orientation, and of course all children should be provided with the basic necessities of adequate food and shelter, along with access to education. Safe and appropriate accommodation with parents and/or guardians is very important, and the committee recommends that the Australian government have a stock of community based housing, as access to the private rental market is often difficult to obtain. I reiterate: such recommendations are about basic rights—to health care, housing, education and income. Such recommendations will build on the new immigration detention values and help us meet our obligations to people coming to Australia but will also still protect the Australian community.

It is both unfortunate and disappointing that the committee was unable to adopt a bipartisan approach to the committee’s second report, with the four Liberals unfortunately taking four different viewpoints. What those opposite really stand for is anyone’s guess. Having supported the government’s reform in December, political game playing has again come to the fore, with the opposition spokesperson happy to kick the immigration issue around. The only problem is that the team she is playing on is not aware they are a team. In the game of political expediency, they are all over the ground in backing away from the committee’s recommendations.

They did not oppose the closure of the Pacific solution in December 2007, after we came to government, and they did not oppose us in August last year when we introduced recommendations to abolish temporary protection visas. But now the coalition has a problem with Labor’s reforms. Now, without any proof whatsoever, the opposition spokesperson claims that the changes they supported are encouraging asylum seekers. I have read some of the opposition spokesperson’s claims. It is a complete misrepresentation to state that the committee recommends the release of asylum seekers prior to health, identity and security checks. This is not the case and is not the intent of the report. ‘Immigration status’ refers to whether a person meets the refugee or asylum seeker criteria, not whether an individual’s health, security and identity checks have been determined.

The committee clearly recommended that there was no need for community detention. Following the health, identity and risk assessments outlined in the first report, a person should be released into the community. Residential accommodation in the community gives people a safe environment in which to live, work or go to school while still being accessible by departmental staff and other service providers as required. It reduces the psychological burden brought on by long and indefinite periods of detention, of which we heard much evidence. Surely this is an appropriate and humane process, allowing people a reasonable quality of life until the determinations on their applications are made. No evidence I saw made me believe that this was not the appropriate way to move.

In closing, I would like to express my thanks and appreciation to the hardworking and extremely patient secretariat staff; the committee chair, Mr Michael Danby; the deputy chair, Mrs Danna Vale; and the other senators and members on the committee. I commend the report to the Senate.

Question agreed to.