30 May 2011
Andrew speaks about the Federal Government’s broken asylum seeker policy.
Mr WILKIE (Denison) (11:06): You do not have to search far for evidence that Australia’s mandatory detention system is in crisis. Most nights on the news we see graphic images of the failure: people caged like criminals, riots, fires, suicide, women and children mourning their dead. And who can forget the gut-wrenching images of a boat laden with people seeking asylum smashing into Christmas Island. Yet still they come—men, women and children risking their lives to seek asylum in the country with a national anthem that boasts of golden soil and wealth for toil and, for those who have come across the seas, boundless plains to share.
These people do not come here by jumping some queue. There is no queue when you are fleeing for your life in the middle of the night or rotting in some displaced persons camp. Nor do they risk the hazardous and expensive journey to Australia because they want to be locked up for God knows how long. No, asylum seekers make their treacherous journeys because their situations are so dire. That is why they are willing to split up their families, leave behind all their possessions and risk their lives as they do. Imagine being in that position where your best option is to put your life and probably all your cash in the hands of some dodgy people smuggler.
How does Australia greet these desperate people who are committing no crime? By locking them up for months and years in circumstances the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights noted last week are ‘arbitrary’, ‘in breach of international law’ and which have ‘for many years cast a shadow over Australia’s human rights record.’ If we needed more proof that this is a broken system, we have also got the report from the Australian Human Rights Commission on Sydney’s Villawood detention centre. Commission President Catherine Branson describes ghost-like people covered in emotional and physical scars thinking constantly of suicide and self-harm. She told the ABC last week:
You get the sense, walking in, of disturbed people, depressed people, agitated people. There is not a sense of normality around you.
Moreover she said:
I think the average Australian would be disturbed if required to spend even a short period of time living there.
Not only is mandatory detention cruel and inhumane, it simply does not work. It is a failed and costly experiment that has gone on for much too long. Yet next year the government will spend more than $700 million on asylum seeker detention and related costs, equating to about $90,000 a year for every asylum seeker who makes it to Australia. The federal government cannot keep kidding itself that its irregular immigration policy is working and just keep building new detention centres. In Tasmania, for instance, the government is about to spend $15 million on a temporary detention centre at Pontville to house asylum seekers for just six months. Putting the humanitarian dimension to one side, is this the best use of taxpayer dollars? Of course not.
I have long opposed mandatory detention anywhere and these latest facilities will be no different. These are people who have knocked on Australia’s door seeking asylum and it is simply wrong to cage them behind wire, whether it be in Pontville or on Christmas Island. We must accept that mandatory detention does not deter asylum seekers and we must find a better solution. We must acknowledge that the proliferation of detention centres in Australia is proof the federal government’s asylum seeker policy is broken.
I make the point again, and I will keep making it until the government and the opposition start listening, that this is not a border security problem. It is much more complex than that and it needs a sophisticated solution that deals genuinely with source, first-asylum and transit countries. No wonder I support the establishment of a parliamentary committee on Australia’s immigration detention system. I trust it will not be a political circus, but instead the first step to Australia adopting a more humane and effective approach to dealing with the wretched souls risking all to carve out a better life here in our lucky country. Indeed, for those who have come across the seas, we do in fact have boundless plains to share.