I certainly welcome the opportunity to make a contribution to this bill. I think we need to cast our minds back a little to when Labor came into office in 2007. There were only four illegal maritime arrivals in detention—four, and absolutely none of them were children. The Howard government had already developed policies that had stopped the boats. That was our legacy for the Rudd and Gillard governments to inherit. It did not take long for them to tear down our successful border protection policies. Within a few years, the floodgates were well and truly open.
In December 2010, Australia reeled in shock at the sight of asylum seeker boats splintering up against the unforgiving cliffs of Christmas Island. Men, women and children were screaming for help as their bodies were pummelled by the rough seas, thrown onto rocks and pounded by debris. Navy and customs crews frantically tried to rescue them, hampered by the poor weather and the huge waves as victims slipped under the water. Local residents on the cliff tops were traumatised by a feeling of complete and utter helplessness as they watched people die in front of them—as were many of those in the Navy and customs that were trying to rescue them. They are still haunted to this day by those horrible images. This happened again and again as the result of this border chaos.
By early 2013, 50,000 irregular maritime arrivals aboard more than 800 boats had swamped our shores, convinced to make the dangerous journey by the propaganda of people smugglers and the negligent policies of Labor. Over 8,000 children were put into detention with almost 2,000 still detained when we regained office in 2013. Most tragically, there were at least 1,200 deaths at sea that have been recorded, and those are just the ones that we know of. Labor had opened 17 detention centres onshore, had reopened two offshore facilities on Nauru and Manus, and had blown out the immigration budget by $11,000 million. Our humanitarian program was consumed by unauthorised arrivals and not those legitimately waiting in refugee camps around the world. We cannot go back or even contemplate this madness.
The coalition has been diligently working to clean up this mess through Operation Sovereign Borders. Again, we have fixed the problem. First, we acted to stop the boats and stop the deaths at sea. Under the coalition government there has not been a successful boat arrival for over 800 days and there have been no deaths at sea. Then we removed all the children from detention, once again, and closed 17 onshore detention centres. RAAF Scherger, for example, in my electorate, was one of the 17. While there were a very small number of people in the Weipa community that benefited for that short period while it was open and were negatively impacted when it was shut down, I can tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker Vasta, the broader community would much rather see Scherger used for its original purpose.
We restored security in our borders and re-established public confidence in border security as well as the integrity of our immigration system. This has had a direct benefit—once again Australia has become a leading player in the global effort to assist those people who are most in need. We have been able to increase our intake of refugees—the world's third largest permanent resettlement program—by more than 35 per cent. We have also been able to take an extra 12,000 refugees from the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts. This would not have been possible without Australia's strong border management policies and confidence in our well-managed migration system.
This legislation will amend the Migration Act to prevent IMAs taken to a regional processing country from making a valid application for an Australian visa. The bill will apply to all IMAs taken to a regional processing country since 19 July 2013.This is the date, of course, that the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared:
“As of today, asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.”
This legislation applies to people who: are currently in a regional processing country; have left a regional processing country and are in another country; are in Australia awaiting transfer back to a regional processing country; or are taken to a regional processing country in the future.
We know that there are people in the regional processing cohort who have already sought, and in some cases been granted, Australian visas. We heard in the news recently, for example, that a potential marriage scam is being investigated at Manus Island after asylum seekers made it to Australia on spouse visas, having married, or intending to marry, centre workers. If these people travel to Australia, it could encourage others to pursue Australian visas in the hope of longer-term settlement. Further to this, if people who have voluntarily returned home or settled in a third country can then travel to Australia on a tourist visa, it undermines our investment in their resettlement. It is a backdoor way of circumventing the government's position.
This legislation is critical to support the coalition's key border protection policies—temporary protection visas, offshore processing and boat turnbacks, where it is safe to do so. The bill merely reflects the government's longstanding position that IMAs who have been sent to a regional processing country will never be settled permanently in Australia. Importantly, this will communicate to IMAs in Manus and Nauru that they will never settle permanently in Australia, no matter what advocates or others may tell them. Unfortunately, while we are trying to resettle people or get them to voluntarily return home, some are refusing to do so because they think, or they have been told, that the policy might change.
The Prime Minister has said many times that, while tough, our policy will not change. This bill is a necessary confirmation, from policy to law, to ensure there is no doubt. We have seen the tragedy unfold in Europe in recent times—bodies on beaches and a refugee crisis. Now that Europe is toughening up on its border protections, there is concern that people smugglers will again look at Australia and adjust their model. They will continue to take advantage of vulnerable people by trying to convince them to get on boats for Australia and risk their lives at sea.
This bill will further undercut the people smugglers' business model. It will communicate unequivocally to the 14,000 waiting in Indonesia to board a people-smuggling boat that they will never settle in Australia. On the face of it that may seem harsh, but what is even harsher is that people smugglers exploit vulnerable people by creating an expectation of an outcome from buying it. We know the people smugglers are smart and very social-media savvy. They will jump on any perceived chink in the government's messages, ready to exploit people's desperate circumstances. Harsh messages are what is needed to take away people's incentive to buy tickets.
As a safeguard, the bill will not apply to an IMA who was under 18 at the time they were transferred to a regional processing country. There might also be a legitimate public-interest reason for someone to come here, and in those cases ministerial intervention can occur.
We are a country of migrants; that is our strength, but we have to make sure that those who come here want to contribute to our society and will be welcome. In Leichhardt, we have benefited from refugee settlement resulting from people fleeing conflict in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. They are supported by organisations such as Centacare to settle in our region and they have made a wonderful contribution. You only need to go down to Rusty's Market on a Friday and enjoy the variety of cuisines and products on offer to see that for yourself.
The reality is that, by blocking the people smugglers, it allows us to welcome a much larger number of people out of refugee camps. We have all seen pictures of these camps—cramped, barren, under-resourced, filled with traumatised families or sole survivors, for whom hope is a luxury. History shows that people in this situation are not targeted by people smugglers because they do not have a dollar to spend to travel here, and they are very appreciative of the opportunity to come to Australia.
This is very well illustrated by the story of young Josephine Umuhoza and her brother Pascal Nshimimana. When Josephine was aged eight and Pascal six, they were separated from their father whilst fleeing war-torn Rwanda to the Congo. Their mother had already been killed a couple of years earlier when the Rwandan war broke out. Soon after being separated from their father, Josephine and Pascal were also separated. It happened when they were escaping once again from a refugee camp in the Congo, when rebels started a war against Rwandan refugees. To paint a picture of their horrific situation, photojournalist Michael Graham wrote that Rwanda at this time:
“… will be forever known as the place where, in 1994, genocide consumed every hill and corner, bodies clogged the rivers, and the 'international community' turned away.”
Over subsequent years, Pascal fled conflict in the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, eventually settling in Kenya and claiming refugee status. Josephine was fortunate to arrive in Australia in 2007 as a 20-year-old Rwandan refugee with her daughter Chantal, and they became Australian citizens five years later.
This timeline is important, because 2007 was the tail end of the Howard government. At that point, Australia was accepting an unprecedented number of humanitarian refugees. Josephine was one of those who benefited as a direct result of our strict border controls. In 2010, after searching for Pascal for 14 years, Josephine finally located her brother. She could not afford a migration agent so Josephine, for whom English is her fourth language, helped her brother to apply for an offshore humanitarian visa, but this was denied on a technical matter. In June 2013 Josephine approached my office for assistance, which I was happy to provide. We helped her to lodge an application for a refugee and humanitarian visa to bring Pascal to Australia.
I would like to read a few words from a letter that Josephine sent me around that time:
“I am writing to you today to express my deepest and most sincere gratitude. You and Jaki—
That is Jaki Gothard, in my office—
have done so much for my brother Pascal and I. The job is still not finished and I know it won't be easy, but I know that you won't give up. I will be willing to do whatever I need to in order to see my brother alive and safe in Australia. I will provide ways for him to contribute to the sustainability of this great country as people living here have given me.”
It has been a very complex and very difficult process since then, requiring assistance from then immigration minister Scott Morrison, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the Australian High Commission in Nairobi and the International Organization for Migration, Canberra operations.
I would like however to make particular mention of Matthew Neuhaus. I met Matthew when I visited Zimbabwe and he was the Australian High Commissioner to Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Subsequently he was posted back in Australia and is now the Assistant Secretary of Africa Branch, DFAT. After several years of frustration and false starts with Pascal's situation, I reached out to Matthew for some help. It was his support, knowledge and contacts in Kenya that enabled Pascal to finally arrive in Australia on 24 June 2016. You can only imagine how incredibly heartwarming the reuniting of this family must have been. I want to extend a very big thank you to Matthew for finding a path through this very complex journey.
Pascal now lives in Townsville with his sister Josephine, her wonderful husband David whom she married in June 2015, their daughter Chantal and their new baby Lazarus. They certainly continue to keep in touch with my office. It is people like Josephine, Chantal and Pascal that Australia must be in a position to help.
This bill reflects our longstanding position—and, as we understood it, the bipartisan position—that IMAs who have been sent to a regional processing country will never be settled permanently in Australia. By not supporting this legislation, the Leader of the Opposition has shown that his words during the election were absolutely false. If he is serious about border protection, if he is serious about keeping children out of detention, if he is serious about not wanting to see more bodies wash up on the cliffs of Christmas Island, and if he is genuinely committed to offering a humanitarian place to more people like Josephine, Chantal and Pascal, Labor must support this bill.
I commend the bill to the House.