Detention centres are not prisons and people inside them should not be treated like prisoners - Terri Butler MP, Labor for Griffith

Detention centres are not prisons and people inside them should not be treated like prisoners

Read the full speech below. 

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (12:45):  I rise to raise serious concerns about this bill, the Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2017, for a range of reasons. Of course it is admirable and sensible to seek to ensure the safety of people held within Australia's care. That's why people on this side of the House have been so outspoken in respect of failures to protect the safety and security of people in our care in offshore detention, for example. But the desire to protect people's safety should not lead us to absolve ourselves of the responsibilities that come with being legislators and it should not lead us to delegate to a single individual the legislative authority of this parliament, particularly in this case, where what's sought is that sort of delegation without any legislative instruments that that individual makes being disallowed in this parliament.

This bill seeks to confer on the immigration minister the power to prohibit items in detention centres by legislative instrument and to make such legislative instruments as he considers appropriate, and to do so in a form of legislative instruments that are not disallowable by the parliament. In other words, it would allow the immigration minister to simply decide to issue an instrument that certain things are not able to be brought into detention centres and this parliament would have no authority to then disallow that legislative instrument. That is obviously a concern, not because of the particular personality of the minister concerned but because no minister should be given that authority when it comes to this particular matter.

Immigration detention centres are not prisons. Immigration detention centres are not a form of punishment. Immigration detention centres are not places where people should be deprived of the usual amenity of life. A lot of the people—certainly not all of the people nor the majority of the people—in immigration detention centres have done nothing other than seek Australia's support and protection, having fled persecution or a reasonable fear of it. They're people who are already traumatised. They're people who have been through persecution at home. There's an example that was in the High Court in December of someone who had been seeking asylum in Australia, had been seeking our protection, who had been persecuted at home having converted to Christianity. That's a pretty common story. When we have asylum seekers in our detention centres, we should be seeking to respond and protect them with compassion and support, not seeking to make that form of detention punitive. The detention should be as short as possible. Refugee status determinations should be made in a timely way. People should obtain protection once their refugee status determination has been made and they should be treated with respect and with safety and security in the intervening period.

On the weekend I met a woman who had been born in 1932 and, at the age of seven, was an asylum seeker and then a refugee. In 1939 she escaped and she reached England, where she was described as a 'friendly alien from a hostile nation'.

We're now facing a very different set of circumstances many decades later. Nonetheless, we're still seeing situations where people are fleeing the risk of imminent death, are coming to completely strange countries and are seeking protection. I'm pleased we don't call them 'friendly aliens' any more, but I'm not pleased at the punitive and often unreasonable way in which people are treated having arrived here seeking our protection. There are plenty of examples of it.

I've spoken before about my concerns about the lack of safety and security in relation to offshore detention. I've supported Labor's policy at the last election of increasing funding to the UNHCR by $400 million so that the UNHCR could assist people in attaining refugee status determinations while still en route, rather than making the dangerous and risky decision to get onto a boat, with a view to avoiding people being in that very difficult situation.

I supported the reinstatement of 90-day targets for the processing of applications for refugee status determinations, which, unfortunately, this government removed when it came into office. It would just be preferable if people, instead of sitting on islands and in indefinite detention, losing hope, could obtain their status determination within 90 days, or at least a preliminary decision subject to appropriate review and appeal rights, of course.

I supported the reinclusion into our domestic law of references to the refugee convention, which this government was successful in having removed in 2014 with the support of the Senate crossbench. I opposed, as did Labor, the reintroduction of temporary protection visas, because I believe that when somebody has made it to a country of protection and has obtained a refugee status determination—has obtained a determination that they were fleeing persecution or a reasonable fear of it—we should let them start a new life and not leave them in limbo on a temporary visa. Imagine trying to get a job or a loan and not knowing whether you were going to be deported from the country in a few years time. You know as well as I do, Mr Deputy Speaker Vasta, because you've met many successful members of our communities who've come to Australia as refugees, that people who've fled persecution, people who've managed to get away and people who've had the wherewithal to start a new life are often entrepreneurial people who make a great contribution through businesses or social services or our community. I do wonder what we're forgoing as a nation by failing to increase the refugee intake and by failing to have stronger and more compassionate policies towards refugees. Like everyone on our side of the parliament, I've certainly had significant concerns and have spoken out about these issues in the past.

In the same batch of legislation in which the refugee convention was excised from domestic law—references to it were removed—we saw the introduction of the so called fast track process with a view to dealing with more of the applications for refugee status determinations that were extant at the time. That fast track process has very recently been in the courts. Again, I'd like to take the opportunity to raise serious concerns about it, because it's a process that denies procedural fairness to people based on the way that they got there—based not on the circumstances they left or the extent of the persecution that they faced, but just on their mode of arrival

I mentioned the case earlier of the man who said he'd left persecution because he had converted to Christianity. What happened in that case was he said: 'I'm a Christian now. I've converted. That's why I was persecuted. I go to church.' And there was a private conversation—he didn't know anything about it—where somebody cast doubt on his conversion because he hadn't been coming to church as much. The lawyers said that, if they'd asked him, he would have said he had moved house and was finding it more difficult to get to that same church. He would have gone and got other evidence to demonstrate his conversion, but he wasn't told about it, and that's under the fast track process.

It's important that we have procedural fairness for people when their rights are being considered and determined, particularly when the potential consequences are so prejudicial.

There have been a range of concerns that I and others have had in respect of policy responses to asylum seekers and refugees in this country, and it's in that context that this bill—which, as I said, seeks to confer on a minister, an individual, the right to make legislative instruments which are not disallowable by the parliament—is so concerning. That's giving a person a lot of power over the lives of hundreds of people who are being deprived of their liberty not for having committed a crime, not for having done anything illegal, but for having come to Australia to seek our protection, having fled persecution or a reasonable fear of it.

I've had some concerns about the operation of detention centres for some time. I visited the Brisbane immigration facility some time ago. Of course, I filled out a lot of paperwork to get in, brought my ID and went along to the facility. We were moved from the entrance point to a visitor facility. We weren't allowed to move around freely to talk to people. We were watched the whole time and we were brought to a little segregated area for visitors. It was quite new. Shortly after that visit, I started to hear from community groups, Christian groups, who were visiting—and I should say it was Reverend Pickering from the Uniting Church who took me along to the immigration detention centre that I visited, and I thank her for that—that the consequence of setting up this visitor centre, rather than allowing people to do what they used to do, which was meet with asylum seekers just in the common area people used for lunch or for gathering, was that there had been the imposition of a limit of two on the number of visits that someone could get per week—two visits per week.

We're not talking about criminals; we're not talking about prisoners. I'm not making any comment about what should happen with prisoners, but here we're talking about people who, as I said, have not been convicted of any crime. So we started to see a limit on the visitors that people could have. Traumatised people who had fled persecution were not able to get as much support as previously. I understand from the minister that that later increased to three visits per week, but the consequence of these sorts of arbitrary decisions around where visits can happen and how many can be allocated per week have real ramifications for the people living in these centres and waiting for an outcome of their situation.

We also learned that, in that particular detention centre, there had been a policy enforced that you had to get prior approval to bring any gifts of commercially packaged food. Again, we're not talking about prisoners; we're talking about people who are waiting for an outcome. Of course friends and family will want to bring food as gifts. After further inquiries, I was then told that, in fact, as well as there being this requirement for prior approval for bringing in a packet of Tim Tams or whatever, now there was a limit of two items of commercially prepared food. I heard stories of people not even being allowed to leave tea bags behind.

Of course I've raised these concerns and other concerns with the minister in previous items of correspondence, as I was already concerned about the arbitrary nature of decisions being made about the interaction between people waiting for their outcomes in immigration facilities and people in what I think the commissioner from the then immigration department described as the 'real world', which I thought was a pretty telling way of describing it. There are already some arbitrary constraints in relation to the engagement that people like me from the community can have with people inside immigration detention centres. So I'm concerned about this idea of providing a new right to the minister to decree such decisions by legislative instrument, issued without any need for recourse to this House or the other place about what might actually start to occur in the event that the minister does obtain that power.

You'd also be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker Irons, that this bill seeks to allow the prohibition of mobile phones within immigration detention centres. That is a concern that a number of my constituents have raised with me, and I anticipate that that will continue to be the case. They will also have concerns about any limitations on internet access and the ability of detainees to be able to communicate about what's happening in the facility, particularly given that, as I said, there have been some limits on visits from outsiders.

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