Changes to Migration Act "are poor law"
Posted February 07, 2018
Cathy shares the response of Indi constituents to migration law changes that will impact upon those who visit and those held in immigration detention facilities
Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (11:25): Colleagues, I rise today to speak against the Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2017. I think it's poor law. My constituents have written to me asking me to speak against it. And, on a personal note, I think—as the member for Cowan has said—it's disproportionate. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's cruel. I ask the government and my colleagues on the government side and in the Senate to really reconsider their support for this legislation, for three reasons: it's poor law; it goes far too far; and it won't achieve its results.
As the member for Cowan so well outlined, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee has done a report. I won't repeat the recommendations that you've so clearly outlined, Member for Cowan. As you remember, the Law Council of Australia has made some very clear recommendations, so I won't cover that ground.
What I'd like to do today is bring the voice of my constituents to parliament. These are people who have visited the immigration centres and have written to me about this, so this is the voice of real people in real time. The major problems that they have with this proposed legislation are the banning of mobile phones and the ridiculous suggestion that we revert to landlines; the blanket treatment of all detainees as criminals, when the minister himself says that 25 per cent of the people in the whole detention centre are there as noncriminals; the excessive power it gives the minister, as outlined; the use of detector dogs, which is so, so distasteful; and the subtlety of changing the names of the transition accommodation centres. We're now going to call them all 'immigration detention facilities'. I think it's from that name alone that we get a sense of what the government is trying to do here.
It gives me great pleasure to bring the voices of two of my constituents to parliament. One is an individual, Freida Andrews, who's a regular visitor to the detention centres. The other one is Rural Australians for Refugees, who made a submission to the inquiry. I'd like to put on record why they think this legislation is particularly onerous. Freida writes to me: 'Cathy, I'm writing to advise you of changes that have occurred to visiting regulations and procedures at the detention centre at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation, MITA, in Broadmeadows. I have been visiting detainees in MITA since 2005 and have continued to remain in contact with them, both those who remain in detention and several who are now on community detention.' So she's got real skin in the game.
She outlines some of the areas where she's got particular concerns. One is movement of detainees. She says that all outside activities were stopped. Accommodation was segregated into separate units for men, women and families. Detainees were not permitted to mix with each other without making an application in writing. This meant that the only time they were able to mix with others held in other accommodation units was in visitors rooms. And, if they were required to attend outside appointments, these people, with no criminal charge, no sense of anything wrong other than seeking asylum, were accompanied by guards—and video surveillance and handcuffs were also used—to monitor them.
Freida also talks about visiting regulations. She's a visitor from north-east Victoria who travels to Melbourne to visit these detainees. She says, 'Applications to visit continue to be accepted by phone or email.' However, the number of detainees that could be visited has been significantly reduced. Session times were changed, with the first one being brought forward to 1.30 pm. Freida says, 'This presented some difficulties for me in terms of coordinating train and bus travel, particularly as the rule was that, if you arrived more than 30 minutes late, you were refused entry.' Everybody who uses public transport in north-east Victoria knows about our abominable public transport system and how it's more frequent than not that the train is late. No exemptions were permitted. 'This also applies to detainees,' Freida tells me. 'If they were not in the visitors room within the first 30 minutes of the visiting session, they were and are refused entry.' Only food that was to be consumed in the visitor's room was permitted.
She talks about gifts to detainees, and it is a common practice in rural and regional Australia that, when we visit people, we take gifts. Traditionally gifts from my community have been gifts of food—fresh food, well grown in our gardens. Freida says: 'Regulations in regard to food were again heightened in October 2017 and still apply. Food that can be taken in is limited to that which is commercially packaged, labelled, factory sealed and has a visible expiry date.' So no fresh food at all—what is that saying? That we farmers don't grow good food? That we won't accept good food? I had the opportunity to talk to the minister about this last night and he said, 'Look, we do it for security reasons.' That just points out to me that, in terms of security reasons, we're just going so overboard. Surely fresh food can be checked if it needs to be. It doesn't have to be wrapped up, and we certainly don't want to take in packaged food.
Freida also said the opportunity to leave a gift for a detainee became extremely difficult. This could have been clothing or shoes. Freida says: 'The detainee must first make a request in writing which is then submitted for approval. If approval is granted, leaving the gift for the detainee becomes a significant challenge. The gift can only be left at reception at restricted times, for example, Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday, between 9.30 and 11.30 am.' Freida says, 'This makes it almost impossible for people like myself who travel a considerable distance to visit to leave something that has been requested or is a gift for a detainee.' Why would we make it so hard?
Freida says applications to visit must be made by email, and she details all the rules there. She talks about how particularly difficult that can be. She's concerned for the families and friends of people held in detention who visit them—not only visits from my electorate, but their family and friends—who may not be able to comply with the requirement being enforced from 22 January. Not everybody has access to a computer or a device that enables them to make an online application, not everyone has the standard of English to be able to read or understand the complicated application forms, and not everyone has the necessary 100 points of identification that you need to become a visitor. So we've made it absolutely onerous, and everybody knows the benefit of visitors and why it's so important. Why have we made it so hard?
Freida goes on to talk about a whole lot of other problems, but that's probably enough just to give you a sense of how cruel and inhumane these rules have become and how we've worked against what surely is the objective of supporting people in detention—keeping them sane, building community connections and making it so that when asylum is granted they can move into the community with good relationships. We are absolutely working against that.
I'd like to now turn to some of the points made in the submission by Rural Australians for Refugees. Rural Australians for Refugees has over 70 branches throughout Australia, consisting of people living in rural communities who support people and those seeking asylum. Many, many of the members of Rural Australians for Refugees travel a significant distance, many on public transport, to visit people in these transit accommodation centres. I will just take a few minutes to talk about some of the issues that RAR sees. I totally on a personal level agree with this. The RAR submission says, 'Immigration detention is ideally for administrative purposes.' So, it's really important that we have the opportunity to put people in transit camps while we sort things out, but it shouldn't be punitive. If it is going to be punitive, if we decide that, then we have rules and regulations that must be followed. They are Australian rules and they've been hard-fought. My sense is that in these particular provisions before the House today we are ignoring the well-fought rule of law.
Many people feel, and I agree, that the conditions that we are imposing on these detention centres are in many cases worse than those in our prisons. There is a lack of a time limit on detention and limited oversight of detention. The lack of a time limit on detention and the issue of attention to people's cases remain two big areas of concern for RAR.
According to the latest departmental statistics, RAR says that, as of 31 July 2017:
…the average length of detention is 442 days, with 22 per cent of the detention population spending more than two years in detention.
No trial and no sense of guilt—just by force.
RAR also says:
While the number of children in onshore detention facilities has significantly dropped, there is still no legislation to prevent the detention of children, resulting in concerns that what this bill is seeking to implement can and will impact children.
RAR talks about the explanatory memorandum of the bill and the narrative justifying why we need to do it. But the narrative doesn't talk about the people who have legally, properly and rightly sought asylum. These are not illegals; it's their right to seek asylum. The bill fails to protect the rights of this group of people and requires them to face the same restrictive measures as those who might have committed crimes—and are assessed to be at high risk. Sure, they might be in detention centres, but putting everybody in the same basket is grossly unfair.
The RAR submission talks about the immigration minister's wide-ranging discretionary powers that already exist in relation to the visas of people in detention. They say that there's no limit and no option to review and challenge these decisions. The bill seeks to grant the minister yet more discretionary power to declare any item a prohibited thing and to prevent people in detention, and their visitors, from possessing prohibited things. We have a list of them here, which includes a mobile phone—heavens above! And we will be giving the minister the power to do more—not to come to parliament to do more, but do it by regulation.
Rural Australians for Refugees is concerned about the discriminatory policy that allows some in the immigration detention centres to have access to mobile phones, while at the same time not allowing people who have come by boat for asylum to have them—and so they continue. I can't see how members of parliament of goodwill could accept this.
The explanatory memorandum also mentions visits from family and friends as being a way of ensuring people in detention maintain contact with their support mechanisms. But members of Rural Australians for Refugees report that it is increasingly difficult for families to access detention facilities. Constantly changing rules and their inconsistent application, challenges to securing a visit and getting through the screening process make it really difficult for visitors to pursue.
Rural Australians for Refugees understand that the ADF plans to implement further restrictive policies regarding the number of visitors a person can see. Why make it so hard? I don't understand where we're coming from with all of this. Why treat everybody the same? Why make it really difficult? Why say that we as a nation need to be almost bullying to get the point of view across.
The bit that really upset me as I was reading about the powers that will be passed through this House, but I do hope will be stopped in the Senate, is the use of detector dogs. There are not many people in Australia who would forget the image of those dogs at the big union demonstration on the wharves a few years ago—the horror it produced in our hearts as we saw dogs on leashes being brought by police to attack unionists. As a nation we said, 'No, we don't do that.' Yet we're going to allow these detector dogs into immigration centres where people have been traumatised and abused. There is no warrant required, no oversight required, no reporting required, and no conviction of these people.
In closing, my call-out is that this is bad law. It's over the top. It's cruel. It's not the Australian way. We are much better than this. Minister, you are much better than this. Prime Minister, you are much better than this. Your government is much better than this. People on the government side, can I sincerely ask you before you vote on this legislation to actually check in with what you're doing, because I will hold you to account. Rural Australians for Refugees will hold you to account, and the Australian public will hold you to account, because this is very bad law.