What a week we have had. The opposition have been harping on all week and trying to inflame the debate about asylum seekers. Every question time we have to put up with their harping and their feigned concern. All week, they have been going on and on and on about the issue. Is it because they cannot debate the other important issues facing Australia? I think it is. Those on the other side cannot debate issues such as climate change because they are divided as a party and have no real policy. They cannot debate schools because they are divided as a party and once again have no real policy on schools and education. Just to make the trifecta, they do not have a policy on asylum seekers either. They are running a fear campaign in a futile attempt to take the heat off themselves and the sorry debacle that the Liberal Party is. They have made some pretty lame remarks throughout this week most of which I would not even bother responding to. I think, though, that they are worn out, really. Those on the other side are a bit like petulant children. If you let them have the tantrums, I am hopeful that eventually they will be worn out and will go to sleep.
The Rudd government is committed to protecting Australia’s borders and to ensuring that people who come to Australia are treated humanely. Our border protection policy involves extensive air and sea patrols, excision, offshore processing and mandatory detention for people who pose a threat to the safety of the Australian community. The Rudd government understands that it is necessary to have good relations with our neighbours in order to combat the serious crime of people smuggling. In regard to this, the Rudd government has more people patrolling our borders than the previous government did.
Mandatory detention is an essential component of strong border control. To support the integrity of Australia’s immigration program, some groups are subject to mandatory detention. All unauthorised arrivals, for management of health, identity and security risk to the community, are subject to mandatory detention. Unlawful non-citizens who present unacceptable risk to the community, and also unlawful non-citizens who have repeatedly refused to comply with their visa conditions, are subject to mandatory detention.
But these people are risking their lives. They sell everything they own to get here because they are absolutely desperate. They risk their lives in rusty old boats. You cannot tell me that anyone that was not desperate would do that. They are not coming on the four horses of the apocalypse and should not be demonised as a biosecurity risk, because as I have just mentioned all unauthorised arrivals have to undergo health checks along with identity and security checks.
Under the previous government detention was the norm. Even children were subject to detention in facilities with barbed wire fences. I have been to and seen some of those facilities, and I am proud that the Rudd government is removing the razor wire in those facilities. Detainees were often kept in those facilities for long periods of time by the Howard government, and both their physical and their mental health were seriously damaged as a result of the length of time they had to spend in incarceration. The Rudd government, as I have said, is committed to a risk management approach. Only those who are considered a high risk to the Australian community should be held in detention centres, but if people are considered a high risk then they will be held in detention centres.
The Rudd government is continuing the work of the former Howard government, which began reforms in 2005 after realising that the Australian system was too harsh and that the nation’s reputation had been seriously damaged. As I have stated, the government is retaining mandatory detention as a way to undertake health, identity and security checks to ensure the safety of the Australian community. But these people are part of a global problem. There are over 42 million displaced people around the world. In recent years global factors have continued to see an increase in the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers.
In regard to Afghanistan, the United Nations Secretary-General noted in a recent report to the Security Council that ‘2008 ended as the most violent year in Afghanistan since 2001’ and that ‘in 2008 there was an 85 per cent increase in the number of Afghan asylum seekers claiming protection in industrialised countries worldwide’. Between 2005 and 2008 the number of internally displaced people assisted by the UNHCR in Afghanistan increased from 142,505 to 230,670. That is an increase of 62 per cent.
In Sri Lanka, in the same period the number of internally displaced people assisted by the UNHCR increased from 324,699 to 504,800, an increase of 55 per cent. Sri Lanka has just emerged from a civil war that has been running for decades and that cost tens of thousands of lives, uprooted hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans and left an economic divide between north and south and between east and west. There are currently 250,000 Tamils from the north of Sri Lanka in camps for internally displaced people.
As I have said, the Australian government has increased funding for border protection and takes the protection of our borders very seriously. Under the Howard government $289 million was spent running the Nauru and Manus offshore processing centres. For the same period, the Howard government’s funding for aerial and surface surveillance by Customs was $25 million less, $264 million. We have more assets patrolling our borders than did the previous government. In 2008-09, the total number of both flying hours and sea days undertaken by vessels and aircraft conducting surveillance in our northern waters under the control of Customs and Border Protection Command was greater than in the previous year. The number of sea days, 5,921 in 2008-09, was over 16 per cent greater than in the 2007-08 year, over 27 per cent more than in 2006-07 and 25 per cent more than in 2005-06.
We have retained mandatory excision of Ashmore Reef and Christmas Island. If a boat is intercepted, those on board are taken to Christmas Island, where they are checked for health conditions, for their identity and for security risks. These people are not biosecurity risks. Part of the fear campaign being pushed by those on the other side is to scare the Australian people into thinking that they are going to catch some terminal disease and that there is going to be plague and pestilence around. I really think it is time the opposition drew a deep breath collectively—which might be a bit hard for those on the other side, because there are about four or five different groupings. It would be great if they took a deep breath and all just relaxed a little bit.
I note also that the government has returned almost 100 people because their asylum claims have been refused, and this includes four involuntary removals. Regardless of the policies of the Australian government, whether it is Liberal or Labor, asylum seekers will continue to seek refuge here, just as they have for each and every one of the past 20 years. Australia has one of the largest surrounding sea areas in the world, with a coastline of 59,736 kilometres. There are over 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia, making it extraordinarily difficult to police the archipelago. (Time expired)