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Asylum seekers; the people who came to us for help - Adjournment Speech

15 August 2017

I rise to speak on a matter of profound importance to Australia's identity as a compassionate and fair nation. This country's migration policy for refugees and asylum seekers has become an international disgrace. It has been four years since asylum seekers and refugees have been incarcerated in detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. And when I recently attended a vigil on the lawns of Tasmania's parliament house, to join with the local community from Hobart and in solidarity with people all around Australia to light a candle for the men, women and children who languish in limbo in those offshore detention centres, I realised just how long the community in our country has been asking for our government to end this incarceration and uphold our international human rights obligations.

The Guardian 's published Nauru files, reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the At what cost report by Save The Children Australia and the work of organisations like the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees and many others have painted a desperate picture: limited access to basic necessities, frequent exposure to harm, violence and abuse—including the sexual assault of children—and significant harm to mental health, leading to self-harm and suicide. With their futures stuck in this torturous indefinite confinement, they have waited and waited and waited, and slowly been driven mad.

The Papua New Guinea High Court has ruled that the detention of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island'srelocation centre is unconstitutional and is illegal. The High Court has ruled that the detention of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island is a fundamental breach of their human rights. The court has ruled that the centre must be closed, and Papua New Guinea's High Court's ruling is a clear signal of just how wrong we've got things. It is the clearest sign that the government needs to do better; it must do better. 

Yet the situation has not got better, in fact, it has got worse. As of 31 July, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection reports that some 791 people remain on Manus Island and 371 people remain on Nauru. 

The rest of the world looks at our actions with dismay and disbelief that we could treat people in this way—people who sought refuge in our country. Heather Higginbottom is the former US Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources under the Obama administration. She has recently written in Time Magazine about the administration's opposition to our policy and that the foundation for the swap arrangement with Australia was, in fact, a desire to assist the people who we refuse to assist. She wrote:

'These are people who risked their lives on makeshift boats to flee conflict and the lack of access to basic means of survival but were turned back by an Australian government that refuses asylum seekers who arrive by sea. As we fuss and fret over the clash of presidential and prime ministerial personalities, actual human beings suffer.'

That is correct—actual human beings suffer and have continued to suffer over the last four years.

Last week, the UN High Commissioner for refugees made a statement:

'UN Refugee Agency is gravely concerned by deteriorating conditions at the Manus Island ‘Regional Processing Centre’, as authorities seek to relocate people to Lorengau or elsewhere in Papua New Guinea. The announcement of the closure of the Centre, in the absence of appropriate alternatives, is causing acute distress among refugees and asylum-seekers. UNHCR is deeply saddened by the tragic death of a young refugee yesterday, which also highlights the precarious situation for vulnerable people on Manus Island.'

I too am saddened by the death of Hamed Shamshiripour. We're told that Hamed suffered acute mental illness for over a year. We are told that his condition was known to authorities and that concern for his welfare was repeatedly raised by his fellow asylum seekers, refugee advocates and others yet he died under our watch in a camp run by Australian Border Force, and this government doesn't even care to investigate why. The power in the Manus Island detention centre has been cut off, access to water is limited, the newly built transit centre reportedly has just 300 beds—less than half of what is required—and current residents of the centre are being threatened with criminal charges if they do not move.

With these on going attacks on asylum seekers and the death of five people since Operation Sovereign Borders began, detainees are understandably stressed and terrified to break point. To argue that the serious and real fears for the welfare of detainees that are raised over and over and over are merely a matter for PNG and that Australia can just wash our hands is an act of such terrible cowardice by this Turnbull government. 

We cannot abdicate responsibility for what occurs on Manus Island. The people who suffer and die there are there because our government placed them there and because our government kept them there for years and years on end. They mcame to us for help, and our fear politics sent them away. It banished them to this island prison. The government paid for these camps so the government is responsible for the consequences of what goes on at these camps and for our actions. 

Even US President Donald Trump wonders why we are doing this. After being told these people are not bad in his leaked phone call with the Prime Minister, President Trump said:

'Well, maybe you should let them out of prison.'

This was Donald Trump saying this. Who would have thought I'd be quoting Donald Trump in a speech! Is there anything more telling or more deplorable than the Prime Minister's assurance to US President Donald Trump that: 

'We will take anyone that you want us to … So we would rather take a not very attractive guy that help you out then to take a Noble [sic] Peace Prize winner that comes by boat. That is the point.'

Those three sentences go to Australia's reputation as a decent and sensible country, right there, in the words of our own Prime Minister.

So what does that mean? That means that Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Thomas Mann, among others— Nobel laureates; refugees—are the kinds of people that Malcolm Turnbull would keep out of Australia if they travelled by boat, which many of them, in fact, did. They're the people Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would keep out of Australia so that he could let in anyone that the US wanted us to let in, even if they were 'not very attractive guys'. 

He told President Donald Trump that he didn't even need to take a single refugee—that there was just a need to be holding up an appearance of compliance. That just shows you the lack of compassion, lack of understanding and lack of resolving the issues in our immigration policy by this Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in relation to the deal: 

'It does not oblige you to take one person that you do not want. The obligation is to only go through the process.' 

How ridiculous! What kind of Prime Minister, what kind of leader, do we have who says that? What a terrible, terrible sham: a swap where we take whoever the US doesn't want and, in return, they are obligated to take no-one. How is that in anyone's interest, let alone our own national interest? And where does it leave the people on Manus Island and Nauru?

What this ultimately comes down to isn't politics. It's not about winning a vote or wedging opponents. It isn't about slogans or catch-phrases. It's about people's lives—people with families; people with hopes and dreams; people who came to us for help. And we cannot turn them away.