Keynote Address – Migration 2010 Conference, Migration Institute of Australia
Friday, 8 October 2010
I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered today, the Bediagal and Kameygal peoples, as well as their descendants who carry on their culture and legacy.
I'm pleased to be here with you for what is my first significant address as the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. I would like to talk to you a bit about my background and how it has informed my views of the portfolio, as well as outline the government's broad ranging plans to address some of the challenges we face in this area.
When Prime Minister Gillard asked me to take on this role, I knew it would be a challenging one – and the first couple of weeks have not disappointed. As well as being challenging, it is an important area – one that I'm delighted to have carriage for.
The Importance of Immigration and Multiculturalism to Australia
Immigration is central to the fabric of our nation, with around two in five Australians born overseas, or with a parent who was born overseas. I'm one of them. My father's family – the Bowens – migrated to Australia from Wales in the 1860s to mine coal. My mother came here 100 years later – in the 1960s – as a self-described 'ten pound tourist'. So I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Australia's migration program.
I know my appointment as immigration minister took some people by surprise. The appointment of an economist who had held a series of economic portfolios left some people wondering what sort of immigration minister I'd be.
Well, as an economist I certainly understand the importance of our migration program to our economic challenges. I understand the impact our immigration program has on the 'three Ps' – population size, workplace participation rates and productivity levels.
When I was Minister for Financial Services, for example, part of my job was promoting Australia as a centre for financial services. And one of our very strong selling points is our well developed foreign language skills, something very much built by our migration program.
Just as importantly, I also understand the value of immigration to our society. I grew up in Smithfield, about an hour west of here – part of Fairfield City, the multicultural heart of Sydney – and I still live there with my family. I grew up with Italians, Maltese, Serbs, Croatians and Macedonians, and we all got along. On the mornings when I drop our daughter off at school, I watch her walk through the school gate with young immigrants from China, Vietnam, Iraq and Sudan, and I'm thankful that she has the benefit of an even more multicultural upbringing than I had. I often say it is impossible to grow up in an area like Smithfield and be a racist. When your best friend at the age of five came from the other side of the world, it does affect your outlook on life. It is this life experience which has informed my lifelong and deep commitment to multiculturalism.
And now, I represent the area where I grew up in Federal Parliament. As you would expect for the representative of a highly multicultural area, a lot of my time as local MP is spent talking to people who want to be reunited with relatives – whether it be a parent from the UK or a brother sitting in a refugee camp in Amman, Jordan. My constituents often remind me that the people sitting in refugee camps around the world are often forgotten in domestic discussions of immigration and asylum seeker issues. The other thing that my experience over the last six years as an MP reminds me of is that behind every discussion, every briefing note, every case, are real people with simple hopes and dreams.
The immigration portfolio is a large one and it is vital to the skills, economic and productivity debate.
Regional Protection Framework
But of course, the most high profile and controversial part of the portfolio is the asylum seeker debate. Emotions are high and views are polarised. Some in the community feel that all who arrive by boat in this country are economic refugees who should be immediately put on the first plane back to whence they came. There are also plenty of people who feel that all people who arrive by boat must always be found automatically to be refugees and that we should have completely open borders.
Neither position stands up to analysis. The middle position – that we must comply with our refugee convention obligations but that we must have as orderly and fair process as possible, that we must rigorously check claims for asylum – will not be popular with either side of a polarised debate. But it is the only sustainable policy. Sound grabs are presented as simple solutions in this debate. The cheap talk of 'turning the boats back' comes easily but doesn't mean much. Sound policy takes more thought.
The government's proposal for a Regional Protection Framework has come in for much discussion – appropriately so. On Monday, I'll be leaving for East Timor, Malaysia and Indonesia to discuss our plans for a Regional Protection Framework. An offshore processing centre without a regional framework is not the solution to a regional problem. The Regional Protection Framework recognises that we have some 3.8 million refugees in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as other issues contributing to irregular migration. An enduring regional problem needs an enduring regional solution.
Regional solutions are not new and this idea is not unique. It is easy to forget that there was a regional framework in response to the Vietnamese humanitarian crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. In our case, Australia took more than 120 000 Indochinese refugees from 1975 to 1996. Fewer than 5,000 of those actually arrived here by boat. The vast majority first arrived in neighbouring countries and underwent regional processing before coming to Australia to settle here. In 1989, Australia participated in an international conference to resolve the ongoing situation of Indochinese refugees in camps in South East Asia. Australia, along with 77 other countries, endorsed a Comprehensive Plan of Action designed to achieve a durable solution to the issue. It is interesting to note this was the first time the UNHCR committed to return those who did not qualify as refugees to their country of origin.
More recently, there have been efforts in other regions to build long term protection frameworks. For example, the Mexico Plan of Action of November 2004 aims to strengthen international protection of refugees in Latin America. The plan focuses on durable solutions for refugees, including a resettlement framework. The 2009 Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, known as the Kampala Convention, is another example of a region-wide approach and is indicative of the broader recognition and value of regional approaches.
A Regional Protection Framework, in line with United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) principles, is a mechanism to bring more fairness to the treatment of asylum seekers while removing the incentive for people to undertake dangerous journeys by boat. A Regional Protection Framework has the potential to be of benefit not just in the short term, but to remain an enduring framework in place for the next wave of asylum seekers – which, as history teaches us, will inevitably accompany a humanitarian crisis sometime in the future.
This is an idea which, as the Prime Minister said when she first proposed it, will not come to fruition overnight. I will not return from the region next week with a final agreement. But it is an idea that is worth every effort to bring to fruition.
Australia is not the only or the first country to face these issues. The UNHCR estimates that at the end of 2009 there were a total of 43.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Of this total, 15.2 million were refugees (including people in refugee-like situations) and 27.1 million were internally displaced persons (IDPs). Some 5.5 million refugees were in a protracted situation. According to the UNHCR, there were a total of 377 160 formal asylum applications made in industrialised countries in 2009. Of these, around 50 000 of these were in the US, more than 33 000 were in Canada and almost 30 000 were in the UK. In comparison, Australia received 6,170 asylum claims in 2009.
In 2005, as immigration and asylum seeker issues were being heavily debated in Great Britain, Tony Blair said:
'People want to know that the rules and systems we have in place are fair – fair to hard-working taxpayers who deserve to know that others are playing by the rules; fair to those who genuinely need asylum and who use the correct channels; fair to those legitimate migrants who make such a major contribution to our economy.'
These sentiments equally apply to Australia.
We mustn't let the asylum seeker debate undermine public support for our immigration program. Can we imagine an Australia as economically strong, as modern and dynamic, without the immigration programs and reforms of Chifley and Menzies, of Whitlam and Fraser?
Australia was the first country in the world to create a specific Immigration portfolio, in recognition of its importance to our economy and now to our society. I'm pleased to be the latest in a long line of ministers to have this responsibility. And I look forward to working with you – important players in our immigration system – in this worthy and challenging task.
Last update: 23 September 2011 at 11:54 AEST