31 March, 2010

Senator Evans' Speech: Irregular Migration - The Global Challenge

Senator Chris Evans
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Minister for Immigration and Citizenship
“Irregular Migration – The Global Challenge”
The Sydney Institute, 24 March 2010

Ladies and gentlemen,

Firstly, I would like to formally acknowledge the traditional owners and
custodians of these lands and pay my respects to their elders, both past
and present.

Secondly, I would like to thank the Sydney Institute for hosting me this
evening. I was invited some months ago and appreciate Ann and
Gerard’s patience and perseverance in getting me here.


I recently came upon a quote which neatly encapsulated my experience
over recent months.

“This is one of those incredibly difficult issues where on the one hand
there are people screaming at us saying that we're being too harsh,
which we're not, and then on the other hand there are some people
saying ‘well you've got to do something to stop people coming in’ yet not
really offering any alternative other than the very harsh and
unacceptable one, from the humanitarian point of view, of turning people
back into the sea.”

It may surprise you to learn that those words were uttered by former
Prime Minister John Howard on 17 August 2001, a week or so before the
Tampa sailed into Australian waters.

I well understand his frustration.

But the Rudd Government doesn’t intend to head down the path he took.
The challenge for the Rudd Government in 2010 is how to respond to the
increase in irregular boat arrivals effectively but humanely.

To do that we must understand what drives irregular movement and
acknowledge its root causes. We must accept that irregular migration is
a global challenge and must be seen, and addressed, in that context.
And we must resist the urge to discuss and debate the challenge of
irregular migration in hysterical and simplistic terms.

As recent history clearly demonstrates, a comprehensive approach –
strongly focused on regional and international engagement – offers the
best way forward.

The challenge of irregular migration is not new, and it is not Australia’s
burden alone.

As United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres
said in 2007: "The 21st Century is a century of people on the move…
Some move because they want a better life, a better future for their
children. But many unfortunately move because they are forced to flee.
They have no alternative… It's not only a north-south movement, it's also
a south-south movement. We witness it around Europe, we witness it in
southern Africa, we witness it in South Asia, we witness it in Latin
America."

At the end of 2008 there were 42 million forcibly displaced people
worldwide, including 15.2 million refugees. Of these, 24 million were
receiving protection or assistance from UNHCR.

The total population of concern to UNHCR has grown from 20 million at
the end of 2001 to 34 million at the end of 2008, which represents about
a 70 per cent increase.

Asylum numbers to industrialized countries are dwarfed in comparison to
the number hosted in neighboring and developing countries. Some four
fifth of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries. Three
quarters of refugees seek refuge in neighbouring countries or their
immediate region.

As yesterday’s UNHCR report on Asylum Levels and Trends in
Industrialized Countries 2009 showed, of the 42 million displaced people,
only 377,000 asylum claims were lodged in what could be considered
‘safe’ countries.

That is the enormity of the global problem.

Here in Australia we are in the midst of our fifth major wave of boat
arrivals over the past three decades. There have been boat arrivals to
Australia in 27 of the last 35 years, so the Fraser, Hawke, Keating,
Howard and Rudd Governments have all faced similar challenges.

Far from believing he had solved the problem Howard spent $400 million
building the 800 bed Christmas Island detention centre, which wasn’t
completed until 2008.

The Rudd Government is committed to controlling our borders and
managing those who seek entry to our country. Australians rightly expect
that the Federal Government will only allow authorised entry and orderly
migration that is managed with integrity in the national interest. We
understand that irregular migration undermines perceptions of the
integrity of orderly migration procedures and evokes resentment and
sometimes fear among Australians.

Importantly, irregular migration places often-vulnerable people in the
hands of criminal syndicates running people smuggling and trafficking
ventures. People getting in those shoddy overcrowded vessels take
extraordinary risks that often result in loss of life.

But I would like to contextualise the dimensions of the problem.

Last year Australia accepted 170,000 permanent migrants to this country
and had four million temporary entrants, of whom more than half a
million had some form of work rights. At the same time we had 1375 air
arrivals refused entry at the airport, and 2726 irregular maritime arrivals.

Without diminishing the challenge of irregular arrivals – it is worth
considering these numbers in the context of total immigration numbers.

This will continue to be a challenge. While there is poverty, famine, wars,
weak and corrupt governments, chronic unemployment, environmental
degradation, natural disasters and racial, religious and political
persecution, we will see people on the move. And Australia, as a wealthy
developed country, where there is stable Government, an abundance of
opportunity, and most importantly – where you can be safe – will always
be an attractive destination.

We need to accept that irregular migration will be with us for the
foreseeable future, and design our policy responses with that reality in
mind.

As I indicated, Australia has experienced five major waves of boat
arrivals over the past 30 or so years. The first wave was in the late
1970s, when just over 2000 Indochinese came to Australia after the fall
of South Vietnam in 1975. The second wave was between 1989 and
1993 when mainly Cambodians fled conflict between Government and
Khmer Rouge forces. The third wave was between 1994 and 1998, they
were mainly Sino-Vietnamese and Chinese seeking relief from economic
hardship. The fourth wave began in the late 1990s and included the
three biggest years of boat arrivals on record, peaking at 5516 people in
2001. In this case, the brutal regimes of the Taliban in Afghanistan and
Saddam Hussein in Iraq were driving people to flee and seek protection
elsewhere.

Each wave of arrivals was generated by deterioration in peoples’
circumstances in their home country. All were abated by changes in
country circumstances or by concerted international action by other
countries.

Many in Australia now seek to deny the reality of these circumstances
and attribute people movements to pull factors driven solely by domestic
policy.

Boat arrivals to Australia dropped dramatically from the end of 2001. Our
political opponents like to claim that their policies of this time – TPVs, the
outsourcing of Australia’s international obligations with the establishment
of the Offshore Processing Centres at Nauru and Manus Island and the
turn-around of a couple of boats – were responsible for the reduction in
boat arrivals. Basically they argue that domestic policy changes were
solely responsible.

But the argument doesn’t withstand close analysis.

Let’s be clear, Temporary Protection visas did not stop the boats. The
record number of arrivals between 1999 and 2001 came in spite of the
introduction of TPVs in October 1999. In fact, in the two years after the
introduction of TPVs there were 8455 irregular maritime arrivals on 94
boats. And because TPVs did not allow for family reunions or enable
refugees to travel freely they actually encouraged women and children to
make the dangerous journey to Australia by boat.

Nor were people deterred by the temporary nature of the visa: only about
3 per cent of those granted a TPV actually departed Australia.

The Pacific Solution also failed. Not only did it damage our reputation
internationally, but the majority – 70 per cent – of those accommodated
on Nauru and Manus Island were ultimately resettled to Australia or
other countries. Some 95 per cent of those resettled in Australia were
recognized as refugees, the bulk of whom had fled Afghanistan and Iraq.

One of my first tasks as Minister was to deal with 82 Sri Lankan men
who had arrived in 2007 and had been left on Nauru by the Howard
Government despite being found to be refugees.

The arguments about TPVs and the Pacific Solution are conducted
without any reference to significant international developments of the
time.

The drop in boat arrivals from the end of 2001 coincided with the
international intervention in Afghanistan in October 2001 and the
subsequent fall of the Taliban. In 2002 a large scale voluntary return
programme of Afghanis in Pakistan and Iran began – the single largest
repatriation operation in UNHCR's 59-year history in fact. Under the
programme, governed by the Tripartite Agreements between UNHCR
and the Governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, more than 4.4
million people returned. More than 400 Afghanis returned to Afghanistan
from the offshore processing centres in Nauru and Manus Island.

Afghanis stopped coming because they would not, at that time, be found
to be refugees.

The drop in boat arrivals to Australia after 2001 also corresponded with a
global fall in asylum seeker numbers. More importantly for Australia,
there was a significant decline in Afghani and Iraqi asylum seekers –
who up until then dominated Australia’s arrivals.

The recent surge has mainly consisted of Afghani and Sri Lankan Tamil
asylum seekers driven by the deteriorating security situation in
Afghanistan and the final stages and aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil
conflict.

The situation in Afghanistan declined significantly in 2008 and 2009.
According to the UNHCR’s 2009 report, released overnight, Afghani
asylum-seekers are, for the first time since 2001, the largest group
seeking asylum to industrialized countries.

Sri Lanka is of course emerging from the aftermath of a 25 year old civil
war. Escalating violence throughout 2008 and early 2009, as well as the
displacement of hundreds of thousands, led to an increase in the number
Sri Lankan asylum-seekers claiming protection in industrialised countries
worldwide in 2008. There have been some recent indications of
improvement in the security situation in Sri Lanka and a number of failed
asylum seekers have been returned to Sri Lanka in recent months.

More than three quarters of boat arrivals since September 2008 have
been from either Sri Lanka or Afghanistan, and instability in these
countries has largely driven boat arrivals to Australia. As UNHCR
Regional Representative Richard Towle stated in January 2010, “The
two principal factors that drive asylum seekers’ movements towards
Australia, New Zealand and the broader Pacific region are conflict and
human insecurity in their countries and regions of origin and the lack of
any credible opportunities for people to find asylum and solutions en
route to this region.”

Put simply, the surge in irregular maritime arrivals is consistent with what
is happening globally and within our region. The whole history of boat
arrivals to Australia is the history of conflict and displacement in our
region.

Addressing irregular migration needs us to have a comprehensive and
integrated approach internationally – tackling at the same time some of
the root causes of displacement in source countries, as well as
supporting transit countries to develop managed migration systems that
effectively regulate the entry of people.

It needs us to support countries in building their own protection systems,
which ensures that host countries do not carry the burden of refugee
populations in the long term.

We also need to better understand the motivations of why people choose
to take the enormous risk of leaving their homes – there is rarely one
single reason but a combination of factors such as armed conflict,
persecution, discrimination and poverty.

Understanding these motivations gives us a clear platform from which to
build on existing policies and reshape the agenda.

Our clear long-term priority must be to address the root causes of
irregular migration flows. We need to know what to target in our
development assistance, peacekeeping and other operations to assist in
stabilizing populations – in particular poverty eradication, institution and
capacity building and conflict prevention.

There are no clear answers but we have to start exploring what can we
do. For instance, we know that a large proportion of arrivals from
Afghanistan have left from one region – should we be working more
strategically in the region to assist in reconstruction? Do we have a role
in assisting in the development of safer environments with access to
alternative livelihoods? How do we collaborate with the provincial
reconstruction teams in the region to address these issues?

We also need to address the issue of transit and secondary movements.
Many countries in the region host substantial displaced populations –
they often also have a limited capacity to host such populations over
long periods of time without it impacting on their own communities and
social institutions. We know from long experience that people displaced
are vulnerable to further displacement and often live fragile lives at the
fringes of the host community.

Developing countries, with limited capacity to host large displaced
populations, carry by far the largest burden. The risk, when there
appears to be no hope of a durable solution, is that these people
become easy targets (willingly or otherwise) of smuggling networks.

This is often compounded by countries having limited and inconsistent
domestic capacities to deal with such population inflows – often lacking
in effective border controls, inadequate and compromised visa systems
and non-existent or inadequate legislation to deal with smuggling
networks.

Protection systems are also weak – with limited understanding of
concepts of protection and lack of durable solutions.

So what is the answer?

No one country can tackle these issues on their own – our best chance
is to work across boundaries with regional governments and international
organizations.

Neither Australia nor countries in the region are starting with a blank
canvas – the Comprehensive Plan of Action was a good model in its time
and in recent years we have built strong institutional linkages with
Indonesia under the Regional Cooperation Arrangements and through
the Bali Process.

For example, our recent work under the Bali Process is important in
starting to map out approaches to displacement across the region – from
source and transit to destination – identifying where the gaps and
weaknesses are, and what we can do – through capacity building,
technical cooperation, and support in developing new legal frameworks
on managed migration – to strengthen the institutional capacity of
regional governments to tackle these issues.

We have been working closely with UNHCR on how we can develop a
broader regional protection framework under the 10-point plan of action.
Our diplomatic engagement with regional countries is also important,
underpinning all of Australia’s efforts to manage irregular migration and
people smuggling. In this context, the commitment of Indonesia’s
President to criminalize people smuggling is a highly significant and
valuable development.

We need to continue working on multilateral and bilateral agreements –
they are an important avenue to build cooperation and trust and achieve
enduring solutions to the problem of people smuggling.

The contemporary debate in Australia has been characterized by a
narrow focus on domestic policy and a return to demands for simplistic
and punitive policy responses, with no regard to evidence of likely
success.

Despite claims that irregular maritime arrivals represent a failure of
border security, the Rudd Labor Government has maintained and
extended the Howard Government’s border security measures.

We retain excision of offshore places, we continued offshore processing
of irregular maritime arrivals on Christmas Island, and we maintain
mandatory detention of those arrivals for health, identity and security
checks.

When growing international pressure led to greater irregular movement
and an increase in people smuggling activity, the Rudd Government
responded with measures including increased maritime and aerial
patrols and surveillance and boosting the AFP, Immigration and
Customs resources dedicated to international anti-people smuggling
activity.

In 2009, we committed an additional $654m in resources to combat
people smuggling as part of the Rudd Government’s $1.3 billion strategy
to strengthen our borders.

The commitment to effective border control, interception at sea of
unauthorised arrivals, processing on Christmas Island and mandatory
detention is bipartisan.

There has been no weakening of border security arrangements under
the Rudd Government – rather there has been an increase in resources
to meet the task.

The Rudd Labor Government has delivered on its commitment to major
reform of immigration policies.

These reforms have included the dismantling of many of the unfair and
harsh policies of the Howard Government. Howard himself had
embarked on changes in 2005 and the current opposition did not oppose
many of the changes we implemented at the time they were announced.
The Rudd Government is proud of its reforms in abolishing temporary
protection visas, closing the so-called Pacific Solution, introducing
decent values to detention policy, providing independent review of
negative asylum decisions and abolishing detention debt.

They reflect values of fairness, respect and decency in dealing with
asylum seekers not a weakening of border security.

Tony Abbott's ascendancy to the leadership and the return of Phillip
Ruddock to a position of influence has seen the opposition again looking
to punishment of refugees as a political message. They seem keen to
resurrect Howard’s rhetoric but have been reluctant to develop any
policies other than to reintroduce the failed TPVs.

The Opposition spokesperson Mr Morrison yesterday suggested we
return to the era of prison hulks.

Mr Abbott is looking to exploit community concern by pretending that
there are viable simplistic solutions to the challenges we confront.

The deliberate burning of SIEV 36 when passengers were advised to
return to Indonesia and the result in loss of life and serious injuries to
Australian Navy personnel highlights the risks involved.

The Rudd Government very much understands the concern and anxiety
in the Australian community over irregular maritime arrivals. Australians’
general sympathy for humanitarian entrants is challenged by the
unauthorised nature of arrival, the involvement of payment to people
smugglers and the notion that more deserving people are displaced by
those apparently “jumping the queue”.

There is no doubt that an increase in arrivals places political pressure on
the Government of the day.

While the public debate has been more balanced and less shrill than in
1999-2001, the Oceanic Viking episode dramatically highlighted the
issue.

The Rudd Government is determined to respond within a framework of
balanced public policy rather than opportunistically seeking to exploit
community anxiety.

Domestic policy changes that can contribute to improved outcomes will
be vigorously pursued.

The political debate in Australia over irregular arrivals has been
dominated by emotion, fear and simplistic domestic notions offered as
solutions to complex international problems.

The global nature of the issue and international factors driving these
waves of irregular arrivals are given little recognition.

The domestic debate always focuses on the simplistic notion that
individual domestic solutions will end the problem.

The current opposition seeks to exploit the issue for opportunistic
political advantage: that's what oppositions do.

Of course in government they had a different view. As Phillip Ruddock
said in 1999, "Australia is not alone. We are also seeing large numbers
of people seeking asylum in developed countries - people from the same
groups as we are seeing in Australia.”

The reality is that combating people smuggling and irregular migration
requires a broad range of international and domestic policy responses.
The Rudd Government is committed to taking action on all fronts: law
enforcement; international cooperation; source country stabilisation and
investment; a strong humanitarian programme; effective border
management; fair and robust asylum determination processes.

It is only by taking action on all of these fronts that we can effectively
respond to the challenge of irregular migration.

The Rudd Labor Government will continue to adjust policy settings and
respond to changing circumstances.

What we have rejected is the notion that domestic responses can include
abandoning our commitment to the Refugees Convention or deliberately
seeking to punish those found to be owed our protection as a means of
deferring others from seeking asylum.

Nor will we demonise these people or exploit community anxiety.

The Australian people experienced that approach under the Howard
Government and decided that it did not reflect the values of Australian
society.

The commitment of this Government is to respond to the latest wave of
irregular maritime arrivals on the basis of a mature analysis of the issue
and sound public policy.

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