Asylum seeker legislation, Malaysia arrangement, Nauru, Bali Process
Tuesday, 03 July 2012
Interview with Linda Mottram, ABC Sydney Mornings
Linda Mottram: Chris Bowen is the Federal Immigration Minister; he joins us now. Chris Bowen, thanks very much for taking time out for us.
Chris Bowen: My pleasure, Linda, good morning.
Mottram: Good morning. Now, why don't you just drop Malaysia from this legislation and any Opposition would pass it and you would have a solution in the Parliament?
Bowen: No, we wouldn't have a solution. We would have a legislation, that is true, but all the expert advice to us all the way through has been that a detention centre at Nauru absent of other arrangements like Malaysia would not be a disincentive, a strong enough disincentive to boat arrivals. Why? Because a detention centre at Nauru is at Christmas Island further away which would just mean that people get processed on Nauru and then if they're refugees resettled in Australia, and that doesn't provide enough disincentive for people to stop the boat journey.
Now, our position is this: we don't think Nauru is the most effective option; the Opposition doesn't think Malaysia is the most effective option. We said, 'Well, let's stop arguing about it, let's just implement a policy, which is we'll implement the Malaysia agreement, we'll have a detention centre on Nauru as well as a complement.' Can anybody suggest, can anybody suggest that if you did both of those things, you wouldn't have a very big impact on boat arrivals? I don't think anybody can seriously suggest that. That's why we're saying, 'Pass the legislation, we'll implement both and we can move on and get the policy implemented and we can stop deaths at sea.'
Mottram: Are you confident that would be the outcome, to stop deaths at sea?
Bowen: Yes, I am. I mean, you'll always get people who take desperate and difficult decisions, but all the evidence is when we announced the Malaysia agreement we saw a reduction in boat arrivals. All the advice to us is that is the case.
Now, I know there'll be some people who don't agree with offshore processing, but I say this and I've thought about it deeply: there is nothing humanitarian, there is nothing compassionate about a policy which encourages people to risk their lives to get to Australia in order to have a better chance of resettlement in Australia, and also there is nothing compassionate about a policy which says to people in refugee camps around the world, you cannot get a visa to Australia because we are giving priority to people who can afford to get here by boat.
I've got one of the most multicultural electorates in the country. I've got an electorate and the area I grew up in and live in has a high number of refugees and there is nothing compassionate about a policy which either: a) encourages them to come to Australia by boat and risk their lives; or says to them, your cousins, your uncles, your aunties, your brothers and sisters who are refugees around the world will miss out on a visa to Australia because we're dealing with boat arrivals.
Mottram: Okay, Chris Bowen is our guest, the Federal Immigration Minister. Malaysia, though, is not a signatory to the UN convention; surely that bothers you?
Bowen: Look, I negotiated the Malaysia agreement painstakingly and both Malaysia and Australia wanted the UNHCR involved in those negotiations and they were involved in the negotiations, and the UNHCR has said it's a workable agreement which would provide improved protection for refugees and provide a disincentive for people to make that boat journey. So Malaysia agreed to all fundamental tenets of the Refugee Convention, also agreed that people sent to Malaysia would have work rights, would not be detained, would be there lawfully, would live lawfully in the community.
Now, I know the Opposition says it must be a signatory country at the same time as their policy is to turn boats around to Indonesia which is not a signatory country and with no protections negotiated – unlike what we did with Malaysia – with no protections negotiated.
Mottram: Yeah, well, no one is pure here; it's very complex, isn't it? Nonetheless, the deal is to send 800 to Malaysia, what happens to number 801?
Bowen: Well, a couple of things. Firstly, Malaysia has said that they'd be happy to talk to us about further arrangements after that. But secondly, I mean, every policy has a cap, every policy has its limits. So Malaysia has 800; the capacity at Nauru last time was 1200. It could get it up to 1500 conceivably, but even so, that's not, you know, we're not talking huge differences in numbers there.
I do think if you implemented both you'd see bigger numbers, of course. But the key is this: also, we're missing the fact that the implementation of policies sees numbers reduce. So therefore we're not talking about the sorts of numbers we're seeing at the moment, all the evidence is we would see substantially less numbers arriving in Australia.
Mottram: But nonetheless, you're not going to get this, are you? It's not going to go through the Senate.
Bowen: Well, it's tough in the Senate, no question about that, but it's only tough because the Opposition is taking the approach they're taking. And, you know, governments have to argue their case in the Senate and what we're asking is what John Howard asked in 2001. John Howard didn't have the numbers in the Senate, he appealed to the Labor Party to approve his legislation. It wasn't easy for the Labor Party at the time; Kim Beazley took a considerable political hit for doing so. But he recognised it was the right thing to do. That's all we're asking Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party to do this morning and the Greens.
I say to the Greens I accept they believe deeply in their policy. I think they are completely wrong in their approach. I don't think their approach is humanitarian or compassionate, in effect. I accept that their intentions are genuine and good. But I ask them to look at the reality of what's happening: people being drowned at sea and what is fair about that?
Mottram: People are still very confused about what is the difference between Nauru and Malaysia. Now you talked about this before, but you see them as fundamentally different.
Bowen: They are because Nauru is a detention centre, Nauru is a facility for processing people. People sent to Nauru under that model don't stay on Nauru if they're a refugee, they get resettled to Australia. So, when John Howard opened Nauru, he said, 'If you come to Australia we'll send you to Nauru and you won't come to Australia' and that couldn't be implemented because which other country was going to take them?
That's why we negotiated with Malaysia when I became minister, and said, 'Well, we need a different model, we need a model which says – as harsh as it sounds – if you come to Australia by boat you're not going to get settled here. We'll process you, the UNHCR will process you as a refugee, but in line with the other 100 000 asylum seekers in Malaysia.' Now, why Malaysia? Because actually, most people think the boats come from Indonesia and directly they do, but actually 90 per cent of the boat journeys actually start in Malaysia. So you say, 'Well, if you come by boat to Australia from Malaysia via Indonesia you'll actually be back where you started and then processed in line with those other 100 000 refugees in Malaysia.' I know that sounds harsh, but it removes the incentive to come to Australia by boat and it means that other people get a chance as well at resettlement, and of course part of it and something I was very keen and pleased to be able to deliver as part of the Malaysia agreement is an increase in the humanitarian intake, if it proceeds, of a 1000 a year. That's 1000 more souls having a chance of a better life in Australia than otherwise we wouldn't be able to provide.
Mottram: Well, if you don't get this through the Senate today, what next?
Bowen: Well, obviously, we'll need to deal with the implications of the Senate decision. We would deal with that at the time. But at the moment, as is appropriate, as tough as it is – people said it wouldn't pass the House, of course; we did get it through the House, there were independent MPs who previously said they were opposed to it, on consideration decided to support it – you've got to make your case in the Senate. We'll be arguing it in the Senate.
We're asking the Liberal Party as a whole and we're asking people of good conscience in the Liberal Party as individuals to reflect on what needs to happen to save lives. All sorts of people have had to revise their positions here and I know that there's plenty of people who it doesn't sit well with, to look at offshore processing. Everybody wants a humanitarian and compassionate approach.
But having dealt with it for 18 months and looked at it deeply, as I stress, there's nothing humanitarian about onshore processing when it's encouraging people to take these journeys. We know that people smugglers don't care, they're just loading more and more people onto smaller boats, and more tragedies like this are inevitable and we really can avoid it.
Mottram: Okay, one last question, Minister. The Bali Process has been dragging on and dragging on, not originally set up to deal with exactly this problem though, was it?
Bowen: Yes, it was, yes, it was. The Bali Process is a good process. It's not meant to end at any time; it's an ongoing process. The Bali Process is countries in the region dealing with both people smuggling, which is what we're talking about here, and people trafficking which is the involuntary movement of people as opposed to the voluntary movement of people smuggling. It's a good process. Indonesia and Australia are co-chairs. The Malaysia agreement was done under the Bali Process. We got a framework agreed at the last meeting, Kevin Rudd, when he was Foreign Minister, and I were Australia's representatives there. We got that framework agreed and then the Malaysia arrangement was processed under the Bali framework.
Mottram: Okay, Minister, thanks very much for your time today.
Bowen: Thank you, Linda.
Mottram: Chris Bowen is the Federal Immigration Minister joining us from Canberra.
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Last update: Tuesday, 03 July 2012 at 12:06 AEST