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    Many shadow Immigration Ministers in the Labor Party

Stephen Smith addresses WA United Nations Youth

In 2004 Stephen Smith MP, who at the time was Labor's Opposition Immigration Spokesperson, spoke at the United Nations Youth Association's WA Chapter's State Conference. Below is his speech.

Image: Since the Tampa stand-off in 2001, Labor in opposition has gone through a long line-up of Shadow Immigration Ministers. From left to right against the backdrop of the 2002 Woomera breakout, they are Tony Burne, Julia Gillard, Laurie Ferguson, Nicola Roxon, Stephen Smith, and the first Immigration Minister under the Rudd government, Senator Chris Evans.

"The International Refugee Crisis"

Paper presented by Stephen Smith MP
Member for Perth
Shadow Minister for Immigration

to the State Conference
of the
United Nations Youth Association (UNYA)
of Western Australia
On Friday 27 February 2004

Thank you Tim [1]

[Tim Morris, Vice President UNYA WA Division]

I am very pleased to be able to officially open your 2004 State Conference.

The United Nations Youth Association of Australia (UNYA) is a leading national youth body. As a non-profit, community organisation it aims at encouraging all young people to strive towards a greater understanding of global issues and the structure, functions and future of the United Nations.

UNYA (WA) runs many events throughout the year, including the prestigious Hammarskjold Trophy Competition, various education programmes, speakers forums for High School students, and not least your State Conference.

Indeed, State Conference is your premier event for High School students in years 10, 11 and 12.

The theme for this year, 2004, is "The International Refugee Crisis", which takes in ideas surrounding international human rights issues, the rights of asylum seekers and the policies of different countries towards asylum seekers and refugees.

On 1 January 2003, there were over 20.5 million people 'of concern' who fell under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

That's the population of Australia!

20 million people in this world who cannot live where they were born without fear of persecution or at least a fear of a threat to their livelihood.

That is a problem easily able to be described as a crisis.

It is an individual crisis for the 20 million who personally need protection or who live in fear, and it is a significant problem for the international community.

The Second World War and the immediate post-war period produced the largest population displacement in modern history.

In May 1945, over 40 million people were estimated to be in Europe, excluding Germans who fled the advancing Soviet armies in the east and foreign forced labourers in Germany itself.

There were also some 13 million ethnic Germans who were expelled from the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia and other European countries.

Another nearly 11.5 million forced labourers and displaced persons were found in the territory of the former German Reich, millions of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian people who had been taken to Germany to work in labour camps.

Over one million people fled from Eastern Europe when the communist domination of the Soviet Union became totalitarianism under Josef Stalin.

Meanwhile there was Civil war in Greece and other conflicts in south-eastern Europe, and millions of displaced people in areas of China formerly controlled by Japan.

The enormity of the problem was incredible, and the upheaval of WWII would have been eternal unless an international solution was found.

The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was set up in 1943, and then replaced in 1947 by the International Refugee Organisation (IRO). In 1950 the IRO evolved into the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Since then the UNHCR has been mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. As well, its job is the international oversight of the Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol.

And the UNHCR has done a very good job in very difficult circumstances.

In more than five decades, the UNHCR has helped an estimated 50 million people reshape or restart their lives.

The UNHCR today has staff in more than 120 countries, who undertake the extraordinary task of trying to ensure the wellbeing of those 20.5 million people 'of concern'.

The term 'of concern' is used today because the UNHCR provides protection and assistance not only to refugees, but to other categories of displaced or needy people. The UNHCR no longer restricts itself to refugees as defined under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol.

These other categories include asylum seekers who are not determined to be refugees under the Convention, people once determined as refugees but who have returned home and still need help in rebuilding their lives as they try and help rebuild their nation, local communities directly adversely affected by the movements of refugees, stateless people, and a growing number of internally displaced people who have been forced to leave their home towns but have been unwilling or unsuccessful in leaving their country.

The magnitude of the problem individual nation states and the international community faces with refugees or persons 'of concern' is enormous and daunting.

Today we may well consider this a crisis, but it was a crisis in 1950, so how has it changed since 1950?

It is true to say that the interpretation of the definition of a 'refugee' has broadened in recent decades, and reflects significant change in the international political arena.

The Refugee Convention arose out of the events of WWII, and the horror of the Holocaust.

I was personally very moved by my own experience as one who has had the opportunity to visit Israel and Yad Vashem, the unique memorial where a flame burns in a darkened hall as an eternal memorial to those who lost their lives in the Holocaust.

Only such a simple memorial would be powerful enough to pay sufficient tribute to those who lost their lives in such a monstrous crime.

As well, the Refugee Convention arose out of the start of the Cold War, where people displaced by the war feared to return to live under Soviet domination.

Since the 1950s and 1960s, nation states have reconsidered their role and responsibility to assist with the movement of people seeking protection.

In order to bear the burden of refugee displacement in the aftermath of WWII and during the Cold War, undeveloped countries received financial aid and infrastructure support from developed industrial countries.

Industrial countries provided assistance partly in exchange for political support to strengthen international alliances that were viewed as pivotal to their strategic influence during the Cold War.

Since the end of the Cold War, the scale and speed of refugee movements has increased significantly. You only have to consider the violence and displacement in a number of African nations to comprehend this, let alone Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan.

In the post Cold War era, new forms of armed conflict flared up and countries who had previously accommodated refugees no longer received assistance from donor states.

The aid had dried up. Countries were struggling to feed their own or maintain order and good government, let alone sustain movement from neighbouring countries.

There was little choice but for refugees to keep moving.

As well, arguments for a change of approach associated with the Convention itself emerged as new forms of armed conflict saw people requiring the temporary but not necessarily the permanent protection of the international community and the Convention.

Neither the international political arena nor the international legal framework has yet adjusted to this new forced mobility of asylum seekers.

This has seen the recent public policy arguments about temporary and complementary protection now emerging as part of the national and international debate.

Developed countries like Australia have a managed and coordinated migration program which this secondary movement stands in conflict with.

The secondary movement of asylum seekers is a real problem for the modern day. It needs addressing, with a coordinated response regionally and internationally, both by the UNHCR and by individual nation states.

Australia has a refugee and humanitarian migration quota of 12,000 each year, which is currently 10% of our annual migration intake. Through this quota the UNHCR has settled thousands of refugees in Australia.

The number of people settled in Australia by the UNHCR has increased over the decades as Australia's own population has grown, along with our capacity to accommodate refugees.

Humanitarian and refugee intake is but one component of Australia's immigration program.

Australia's migration program is comprehensive and designed to meet both the needs of Australians in the future and our obligation as a good international citizen.

Our managed migration program is primarily designed to help people wanting to come to Australia permanently. The migration program is made up of:

  • a skilled migration stream, which has a number of categories for people who have particular occupation skills, outstanding talents or business skills;

  • a family migration stream, where people can be sponsored by a relative who is an Australian citizen or permanent resident;

  • special eligibility migrants, who are former citizens or residents wanting to return to Australia, or certain New Zealanders.

The migration program for 2003-04 has 100,000 to 110,000 places available for migrants, plus a parent contingency reserve of 6,500 places for a full year.

We consider our humanitarian program as separate and designed for refugees and others in special humanitarian need. The major component of the humanitarian program is the offshore resettlement program, which assists people in humanitarian need overseas for whom permanent resettlement in another country is the only option.

The onshore protection component is for those people already in Australia who arrived in an authorised manner on a temporary visa or who arrive in an unauthorised manner, and who claim Australia's protection.

The size of the 2003-04 humanitarian program is 12,000 places.

Our migration program has developed over decades under Federal Governments of both political persuasions. Bipartisan support for this program has been seen in the migration policies of both the Labor Party and the Coalition, so much so that over the years there have been claims there is no real substantive policy difference between the two major parties.

While that claim can be made about the size and nature of our offshore humanitarian programme, it certainly can not be made when we talk about the treatment of asylum seekers who arrive in an unauthorised fashion.

The basic principles of the Labor Party are reflected in our Party Platform:

Labor's refugee and asylum seeker policy will be in accordance with the following principles:

  • That Australia should comply with the letter and the spirit of the obligations Australia has voluntarily assumed by signing the Refugee Convention and other relevant international instruments;

  • That Australia should seek to lead world debate on the new agreements and understandings required to ensure that the Convention and the international protection system function effectively over the long term, including encouraging countries in our region to become signatories to the existing Refugee Convention;

  • That Australia should develop further multi-lateral solutions, recognising the importance of regional neighbours, with the aim of eradicating people smuggling, deterring secondary movement and enabling genuine refugees to access processing and appropriate settlement outcomes;

  • That Australia should seek to eradicate people smuggling, which is an organised criminal activity that costs lives, by effective law enforcement as well as relevant international agreements;

  • That, as a matter of fairness, Australia should seek to assist the world's most vulnerable whether those persons are within or beyond our immediate line of sight;

  • That Australia should take its fair share of refugees for resettlement and contribute a fair share to international aid efforts and to UNHCR to alleviate the pressing humanitarian needs of displaced persons;

  • That asylum claims made in Australia should be assessed in a manner which is both fast and affords procedural fairness, with those found to have genuine claims and not able to be resettled in other Refugee Convention signatory countries provided with appropriate settlement outcomes and services, while those without genuine refugee or humanitarian claims are quickly returned;

  • That mandatory detention be used for the proper administrative purposes of ensuring the health, identity and security checking of all unauthorised arrivals, enabling the expediting of processing and ensuring that those whose claims have failed are locatable and available for removal from Australia;

  • That the conditions of detention be humane and appropriate to needs of asylum seekers, with appropriate arrangements made to meet the needs of unaccompanied children and family groups;

  • That the length and conditions of detention be subject to review and that detention centres be managed by the public sector.

Labor believes in an orderly immigration system, a system based on the rule of law, a system of integrity in which the Australian people will have confidence and trust.

For the Australian people to have confidence in the administration of our immigration system, it must be built upon rigorous procedures and processes, which protect our national interest and our national borders.

We must also treat individuals fairly and with dignity. To treat individuals fairly requires that they are dealt with in a speedy and efficient manner, where decisions are based on fair procedures and subject to appropriate review.

Protecting our national interest and our national borders requires zero tolerance for people smugglers, who will be subject to harsher penalties to deter their activities and stop unauthorised boat arrivals.

It is also in our national interest to conduct ourselves as a good international citizen, to do our fair share for those who are subject to persecution and who need protection.

Labor in Government will ensure that our borders are secure and that the processing and detention of asylum seekers is both civilised and fair.

So far as mandatory detention is concerned, Labor proposes to maintain mandatory detention, to ensure that in the first instance people who come here in an unauthorised way are checked for identity, health, quarantine and security.

But we say you can also have graduations of detention.

And the best example of graduations of detention is no children in detention, kids out.

And you can also ensure with sensible graduations that we can have families living in residential style hostels with discreet supervision and discreet security, on the model that you can see at Port Augusta.

And we believe it is essential that if the Commonwealth has to detain people, they are detained by Commonwealth officers on Commonwealth territory. The best way of ensuring accountability and transparency is to ensure the Commonwealth is responsible and accountable and that accountability is transparent. That's why as well we say we need an Inspector General of Detention and sensible media access, and sensible access to medical services as well.

And we believe we can do 90% of claims in 90 days with a target of all claims done in 12 months and an independent review of all claims that aren't processed or successfully completed in 90 days.

So far as Temporary Protection Visas are concerned, John Howard believes that Temporary Protection Visas somehow operate as a form of deterrent to unauthorised arrivals. If it is such an effective deterrent, why then have we had nearly 9,000 people come here on his watch who are now out there in the Australian community?

We say there is a role for Temporary Protection Visas, but only if that role is consistent with the Refugee Convention.

While this point is often forgotten, the Refugee Convention always envisaged that there would be circumstances where the ongoing protection of the Convention was not required.

Under Labor's model, an unauthorised person who comes here and is determined to be a refugee, will go on a Temporary Protection Visa for a one-off period of two years, after which if the ongoing protection of that person is required, and the onus of that will be on the Commonwealth, then that person has a pathway to permanency.

We also have to deal with John Howard's TPV backlog. What do we do with the 9,000 people out there on a Temporary Protection Visa?

Now it would be easy for us to ignore that issue but we have to front it and confront it.

At the moment of those almost 9,000 people on Temporary Protection Visas nearly 4,000 have been in the community for 3 years. By the end of this year, upwards of 7,300 people will have been in the Australian community on a Temporary Protection Visa for three to four years.

We say two years is an appropriate time to make a judgement. Two years is an appropriate period to give protection, but after that period a different public policy consideration comes into play.

And so we say that if the ongoing protection under the Refugee Convention is not required, in the case of those people who have been here on a Temporary Protection Visa for two years or more, you can make a judgement which is, are these people who have been out and about in the Australian community making their family, community, social and economic contacts, are these the sorts of people who in any event Australia would want as part of our migration intake?

Another element of this debate that has to be confronted is the so called Pacific Solution.

Labor says the Pacific Solution has to go.

The Government has backed itself into a corner but it now needs to acknowledge that there is no longer any viability for the so-called Pacific Solution.

That is certainly the case with Manus Island, with Papua New Guinea (PNG) Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, confirming yesterday that there will be no extension of the Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) between PNG and Australia at the end of this year.

Let's hope it doesn't take that long to end the extraordinarily expensive farce which sees the Government outlaying $216,000 per month to keep one asylum seeker on Manus Island. One asylum seeker who now has the run of the island.

It would make more sense to close the detention centre and make a modest contribution to his hotel bill!

While acute embarrassment about the cost to the taxpayer may shame the Government into closing Manus Island, it will in my view be the actions of the UNHCR that propels the Government into action in closing Nauru.

As you may be aware, on Christmas Eve the UNHCR announced that it would reassess the cases of 22 Afghans it had previously determined not to be refugees on the basis of changed circumstance in various regions of Afghanistan.

The UNHCR visited Nauru this week and conducted interviews with detainees. While I have no especial or indeed any information or knowledge about these interviews, the Melbourne 'Age' reported a few days ago that of the 22, 9 had been reassessed as refugees. I understand the remaining assessments are now awaiting further advice from the UNHCR's country report of Afghanistan and other relevant information necessary to finalise the assessment process.

I would hazard a guess that whatever the number, the UNHCR would assess some of the Nauru Afghan asylum seekers as refugees, some not refugees but failed asylum seekers, who would fall into two categories: those whom it was safe to return home, whether home was Afghanistan or Pakistan, and those in respect of whom it was not safe to return to their respective regions of Afghanistan.

Presumably those assessed as refugees will be resettled by the UNHCR and the Australian Government in a similar fashion to previously assessed refugees from Nauru and Manus Island - namely the vast majority settled in Australia and small numbers settled in third countries.

It is already the case that 379 refugees from Nauru and Manus Island have been settled in Australia, 370 in New Zealand, and 37 people settled in Sweden, Canada, Denmark and Norway.

On the basis that those who can be safely returned home are returned home, what then does the Howard Government do with those failed asylum seekers in respect of whom it is not safe to return to relevant regions in Afghanistan?

Keep them on Nauru until it is safe for them to return?

Move them to Christmas Island?

Find a third party nation state happy to take them on a humanitarian basis?

Or bring them to mainland Australia on a transitional basis pending further developments in their country of origin?

By the way, to continue to leave them on Nauru on the pretence that that somehow provides a deterrent to unauthorised arrivals is now beginning to defy credulity.

This issue will shortly seize Minister Vanstone and the Howard Government.

While it took Minister Vanstone nearly three weeks to do it clearly, the Australian Government has undertaken to reconsider the 182 Afghans on Nauru originally assessed by DIMIA officers on the same basis as the UNHCR reconsideration.

Presumably that will lead to a similar outcome - some refugees, same not and of those, some not safe to return home.

Minister Vanstone and the Government should now play smart - accept that Nauru is over and put in place the necessary transitional arrangements to effect that.

If they do so, no one will welcome it more than Labor. We will respond positively and favourably to whatever transitional arrangements or measures the Government sensibly wants to put in place, whether that's a move to Christmas Island, a third party nation state or mainland Australia.

In addition to the Afghans on Nauru, the Government is also confronted with the logical dilemma of the remaining Iraqis on Nauru. On its own admission, the Government has frozen consideration of any Further Protection Visa applications made by Iraqis on Temporary Protection Visas in Australia. It seems happy to do that for an indefinite period, but it can't leave the Iraqis on Nauru in a state of suspended animation forever.

I see these dominos eventually falling, and the start of this process should not be misunderstood - action by the UNHCR, doing its bit to address the international refugee and asylum seeker problem, as has been the case since 1950.

The Labor Party has long supported the mandate of the UNHCR. When it comes to asylum seekers Labor:

  • Stands for a fair refugee and humanitarian program;

  • Supports the Refugee Convention and voluntary acceptance of the need to comply with it;

  • Will do our fair share in humanitarian services as a good international citizen;

  • Supports the deterrence of secondary movements;

  • Supports the eradication of people smuggling;

  • Supports the speedy processing with procedural fairness; and

  • Wants mandatory detention maintained in a humane way, not in a punitive way, and managed by Commonwealth officers on Commonwealth territory.

Labor understands you've got to ensure that people are dealt with fairly, that they are dealt with dignity, and that they are dealt with civility.

You can have an immigration system which protects the national interest, which secures our border, but at the same time treats people who come here with civility and fairness.

The UNHCR has continued to work with the Australian Government since the end of 2001 to resolve the problems the Howard Government created with the 'Pacific Solution.'

The UNHCR has successfully settled hundreds of asylum seekers in Australia, New Zealand and other nations. It has also assisted with the safe return and resettlement of some to their country of origin.

The UNHCR is about to do further good work for asylum seekers currently detained in Nauru, yet another contribution to seeking to resolve the personal crisis for the 20.5 million people 'of concern' it has under its ambit.

The Howard Government could make its own equal contribution by ending the Pacific Solution now.

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