Changes to the character test under the Migration Act, visa processing times, refugee support services
Thursday, 28 April 2011
Interview with Sally Warhaft, ABC Melbourne
Sally Warhaft: The minister joins me now. Chris Bowen thanks for being here.
Chris Bowen: Pleasure Sally, good morning.
Warhaft: Look, you know, the crackdown on refugees that you announced yesterday is being interpreted by many as return to the bad old days of the Howard Government. What do you say to that?
Bowen: I think that's a very long bow Sally, and I think even there are strong views obviously on both sides of this debate, but I think everybody would agree that the sort of activities we saw at Christmas Island and Villawood are completely unacceptable. Now, the situation is this: under the previous Howard Government they had temporary protection visas across the board for everybody who claimed asylum who'd come off a boat.
What I have said is that we currently have people in the community on temporary visas; these are called under the Act 'bridging pending removal visas' and these are used for people who have character issues but who can't be returned to the country from which they've come at this point. What I've said is we have an existing character test but I don't think it's strong enough and I've tightened that to make it easier for the government to cancel or decline people permanent visas if they have committed an offence in immigration detention. Now the number of people who commit an offence in immigration detention is relatively very small compared to the total numbers in immigration detention, so to compare a general, across-the-board TPV policy to a tightening of the character test, I think is a long bow.
Warhaft: Well the Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says this is a backdoor way of reintroducing them and Scott Morrison on the other side, the Shadow Minister accuses you of reintroducing temporary protection visas under a different name. This is what he said yesterday when I talked to him:
Warhaft: What do you say to that Chris Bowen?
Bowen: Well he's just making his normal political points. I say this, I do this temporary protection visas are not a disincentive for coming to Australia and seeking asylum, but I do think if you say to people in immigration detention 'If you are a genuine refugee and you have not committed an offence in immigration detention, you'll be given a permanent visa; but if you do commit an offence in immigration detention you'll get one of the existing visas which other people get when they fail the character grounds, which is a temporary visa which says either: a) we'll return you when we can, or b) if you become a good community resident – a good resident of Australia and you have a good behaviour, a track record over a period of time then we'll consider other arrangements for you'.
So I think they're quite different and to suggest, you know, that the thousands of people getting a temporary protection visa under the Howard Government is somehow similar to saying that the people who commit an offence in immigration detention will receive an existing class of visa, as I say, I think is a very long bow.
Warhaft: Well a 'bridging pending removal' visa, which I might say is a very weird name, it doesn't –
Bowen: That's the Migration Act for you Sally. There's lots of jargon around the Migration Act, but I do agree with you, yes.
Warhaft: Okay, well this is one approach to deter problems like we've seen and clearly something has to be done, but if people weren't locked up for excessive lengths of time in overcrowded detention centres, it's very likely these kind of protests wouldn't happen.
Bowen: Well Sally, I think it's hard to – and it's important not to generalise and oversimplify this debate. Now, I do agree with you that there have been issues around processing people more quickly and we're dealing with that.
There have been some issues in some detention centres being over-capacity: that wasn't the case at Villawood. Villawood was slightly under-capacity. In relation to many of the protesters at Villawood, they weren't protesting about the amount of time it was taking to process their visa, they were protesting about the outcome – they didn't like the result, they didn't like the fact they weren't being accepted as refugees.
There has been an issue around the amount of time it takes to give people their security clearances; we've dealt with that. The majority of people who have been refugee accepted have now received their security clearance through a very intensive process that we put in place with the cooperation of ASIO.
So we've been dealing with those things, and I agree with you, we've got to do both, you've got to try and make the process as efficient as you possibly can, but you've also got to have a very clear message and disincentives to what is unacceptable behaviour and violent behaviour in detention centres.
Warhaft: Yeah, I mean it seems like the measures to actually put people who are going to get visas in the community quickly and efficiently, that there's not much ground being made on that. Do you understand why many Labor supporters in particular, are completely disillusioned with the government, that you championed compassion right through the 2007 election campaign onwards: Labor was the party that would show compassion to people seeking asylum, that you would clean-up and fix-up and make efficient these places. Do you understand why, you know, a little bit of stress and you seem to be going backwards?
Bowen: Well Sally, I understand the politics of this which is challenging on both sides of the debate, but – as is the public policy. But what you have to do is have a sensible and rational way forward. There are those who would see us move significantly to the left, and some supporters of my party, I accept it. There are others who would see us move significantly to the right.
I think we've got a process in place, and I must say I don't agree with you that we haven't made good progress – whether it is getting people processed much more quickly for their ASIO clearances which is a substantial part of the waiting period, whether it's moving families and children into the community, we've made very good progress on that. I've said we'd have the majority of children out into the community by June and we will. We've already got more than a quarter out, we've got almost every young unaccompanied minor out into the community. We've been working very closely with the Red Cross to do that and I think we have made very good progress in doing those things.
Warhaft: Don't you think there's a problem if Tony Abbott, who has, you know, supported practically nothing that the government has put forward, is likely to support this measure, however begrudgingly? I spoke to Scott Morrison as you know yesterday and he, you know, it looks like you wouldn't get any opposition in this. What does that tell you about the direction your policy's heading?
Bowen: Well look, as I say, I think this is an appropriate policy and I do think it would be hypocritical of Mr Abbott not to support it. And I saw the Greens saying that they don't support it, saying they don't agree with the conduct in detention centres but they don't support this. Well, you know, the Labor Party and the Greens have a different view about this and well, I'll provide briefings to them as to why we think this is necessary.
But look Sally, I think it's appropriate to be able to say to people, 'If you commit an offence in immigration detention, then you risk getting a permanent protection visa'. I think that's a totally appropriate thing to do. Others will disagree with me and that's the lot of the Immigration Minister, to have people disagreeing with you on the right and the left at various times, but it's an appropriate policy response.
Warhaft: Chris Bowen, have you spoken directly with the Prime Minister in the past few days since she's been in North Asia about this problem?
Bowen: No, I haven't spoken directly with the Prime Minister, but I've certainly been in very close contact with her office and I've certainly been speaking very regularly with the Acting Prime Minister.
Warhaft: And how long has this new visa proposal been in the works?
Bowen: Certainly we've been contemplating it for a little while and certainly I expedited it and its delivery in response to the events at Villawood, but it certainly has been under government consideration for some time.
Warhaft: You say that this is not the same as a temporary protection visa, but it is a visa that perpetuates and exaggerates uncertainty for people, and uncertainty is one of the biggest challenges that people seeking asylum – it's the thing that creates most problems for people.
Bowen: Well I certainly do agree that yes, it does – it is not the same as a permanent solution. As I say, if this was being proposed for every asylum seeker across the country I'd say, 'Well, that's not the right approach, that's silly'. But I do think if there is to be people who say, 'Well, I'm going to commit violent acts in detention centres, and I still want my permanent visa'; I don't think that is an appropriate way forward.
Warhaft: Do you think the overall situation in dealing with asylum seekers by your government is – at the moment, is humane?
Bowen: Well look, I do because I think what we have is a situation whereby if you come to Australia without a visa, and in many cases without any documentation, I think it's appropriate that there be a system for processing that and that involves an element of detention. I also think that it's appropriate that we do that as quickly as possible, as efficiently as possible. It's challenging, particularly when you have a large number of arrivals as we've had over the last few years.
I've spent a lot of time in detention centres obviously in my role. They're not designed to be pleasant places but we also do take steps to make sure that there's appropriate care in place, that there's activities, et cetera, in terms of people's development and well-being. And as I say, my focus has been to get people processed more quickly, to get families and children into the community, and I think they're both appropriate policy responses.
Warhaft: But why so long? Why is this issue seemingly so impossible to fix, of it taking so long?
Bowen: Well as I say, you have a situation where people have an element of appeal rights; if they're rejected at the first level, they're able to appeal. That's appropriate because to some degree there are subjective judgements and information involved. You also then, once people are accepted as refugees, have the whole issue of security clearances. As I say, we've made good progress there, we now have those being processed very quickly and people being released into the community much more quickly than might have been the case before.
So it does take time and some cases are more complex than others, some people move through the system fairly quickly. Now others, which get attention rightly, take a lot longer, they're more complex, they might be in a situation where they have a contested assessment, where the department or the independent reviewer feels they are not a genuine refugee and they're contesting that; or they have a complex history which draws the attention of security agencies and their security clearance is a lot more complex and takes longer. There will always be those sorts of cases in this environment, but as I say, a number of people do move through a lot more quickly; where there case is simpler, where they are, you know, very clearly a genuine refugee and that's cleared by the department from the outset and their history is not one which draws concern from security agencies.
Warhaft: Alright, look I just want to ask you one more thing finally about a different matter. We've been talking this morning about the Sudanese youth brawls, there have been three in three days in Melbourne, and I know obviously this is not your specific area to be across but I just wondered what your view is when something's identified as a particular problem with a particular group, but also what services the government provides. Some of these youths have come as refugees and what services exist from the government to support people like this?
Bowen: Sure, and it is something that I've noticed over the last couple of days. I've noticed these incidents in Melbourne and they're certainly very concerning, and you're dead right, there does need to be support for refugees in particular. These are people in often, cases who've been through torture and trauma, and some of the young children involved not only are particularly, you know, haven't received a particularly good education, but have never been to school and the whole schooling environment is foreign and alien to them, they need extra support. That's something I see in my own electorate in Sydney, and we do provide substantial support services.
Every community that's come to Australia has been through an adjustment period. Certainly in terms of the support we provide the Sudanese community and whether there's anything more we can be doing, I'm happy to talk to the Victorian Minister for Multicultural Affairs, et cetera, and see – make sure that we're doing everything we can. My Parliamentary Secretary Kate Lundy does an excellent job in managing the support on a day-to-day basis and I'm sure she'd be happy to look at the Sudanese community in Melbourne and see if there's anything more we can be doing to assist, both the law enforcement agencies and the Sudanese community leaders.
Warhaft: I think that sounds like a good idea. Chris Bowen, Immigration Minister, thanks for taking the time to answer questions this morning.
Bowen: Pleasure Sally. Talk to you soon.
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Last update: Tuesday, 30 August 2011 at 13:46 AEST