It’s been a big week for refugee policy in Australia.
Not only has the Senate passed two bills to make immigration laws more humane, but the truth is finally emerging about the explosion of a boat full of asylum seekers, SIEV-36, off Ashmore Reef.
This week, the time limits which required new refugees to lodge protection claims within 45 days of arrival in Australia were abolished. Only those who lodged their protection claims within the 45 day limit were eligible to work and receive Medicare benefits while their claim was being assessed.
Even more significant was the passing of the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill. This legislation not only abolishes the practice of charging asylum seekers and detainees for the cost of their detention but will also extinguish all outstanding detention debts. Liberal Senator Judith Troeth crossed the floor to vote with Labor, much to the chagrin of her party, and both Steve Fielding and Nick Xenophon supported the reforms.
Charging detainees for the cost of their detention was a Labor policy, brought in at the same time as mandatory detention. Its aim was — if you believed the Labor spin at the time — to reduce the costs to the Australian Government of its new detention policy.
Liberal Senator Michaelia Cash is probably more on the money when she commented after the second reading of the bill in the Senate this week that "it was intended by the Keating government, when it first introduced it, to represent an additional deterrent to potential illegal immigrants and was designed to send a strong, clear signal to the rest of the world that people who attempt to enter Australia unlawfully are unwelcome."
If that wasn’t the original intention, it was certainly the way the Howard government interpreted the law during its decade in power. "Remember," Senator Cash said in Parliament on Tuesday, "those who are incurring this debt arrived on our shores illegally."
Either way, the policy was a resounding failure. Since 2004–05, less than 2.5 per cent of detention debt has been recovered. In most cases, the cost of debt recovery was prohibitive. The policy tied up departmental resources and delivered a devastating blow to the many ex-detainees who were given permission to stay in Australia and then had to start their new lives bearing six figure financial debts for their years of trauma at the hands of the Australian Government.
The figure of the refugee dominated the speeches to the Senate about this bill. The policy was never really about refugees though: those who were granted refugee status were never asked to pay the Commonwealth for their detention stay. It also was never about the visa-overstayers who were deported and were never going to pay up. This bill concerned the lives of people who were given permission to stay in Australia through ministerial intervention — perhaps because they feared a form of persecution not covered in the Refugee Convention — or for those who married Australians.
"It could be someone who has been granted a visa because she fears going back to a country where she may be forced to have compulsory female genital mutilation," the Minister for Immigration, Senator Chris Evans said. "You say, despite the government of the day saying she is entitled to a legal visa, she has a debt for her detention and we are going to punish her … It is nonsense; it has always been nonsense."
However, the Coalition predictably used the opportunity to have a crack at asylum seekers and at Labor’s retreat from some of the more punitive and cruel practices from the previous government.
Many tired old tropes emerged from Howard’s grave: the queue jumping, the argument that refugees should have stopped in Indonesia or any other country they came through to get here, the accusations of "soft policy", and the ever-present cheer, "Illegals!"
Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells claimed the debt regime "is not an onerous obligation to place on an applicant", and that she found it "remarkable that Australia’s system of detention has often been wrongly characterised as one which principally targets refugees and asylum seekers".
Similarly, Liberal Senator Mathias Cormann spoke with disapproval of the Rudd Government’s dismantling of the Howard/Keating refugee policies. "These Rudd Government changes undermine our system of mandatory detention," he said.
Senator Cormann also took a dig at the Government over the Ashmore Reef boat blast. "Earlier this year, on 16 April 2009, we had a boat explode to the north-west of Australia; a boat exploded and people died. The Rudd Government was going to present a report on this. Where is the report by the Rudd Labor Government on what happened to the SIEV 36? … What has the Government got to hide?"
This was a particularly timely comment as it has recently come to light that the Government’s decision to reserve comment on the tragedy was a wise one indeed. The Australian reported on Monday that the blaze was most likely caused by a cigarette igniting fuel vapours after the Navy ordered the boat to refuel.
If the Coalition was in charge at the time of the explosion, in what direction would the narrative have headed: suicidal, irresponsible and perhaps even murderous "illegals"? Certainly, the flames on SIEV 36 had barely been extinguished before WA Premier Colin Barnett went to the media with rumours of asylum seekers sabotaging their own boat. "It is understood that the refugees on the boat spread petrol and that ignited causing the explosion," he told reporters in Perth.
Expect more howls of protest from the Coalition as the Immigration Detention Reform Bill is discussed in the coming weeks. "This is yet another bad piece of legislation," Cormann said. "This is yet another bill in the immigration portfolio that takes Australia in the wrong direction."
As the Senate debates the right direction for immigration policy in Australia, the Coalition is making it clear just how many relics of Howard-era refugee politics it has dragged into Opposition.
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