August 15, 2012
THE Gillard government’s offshore processing laws are all but certain to clear parliament on Thursday, paving the way for advance teams to head to Nauru and Papua New Guinea by week’s end.
The government pushed its legislation through the House of Representatives with coalition support today.
Only Australian Greens MP Adam Bandt and independent MP Andrew Wilkie voted against the bill.
“Today the house has done what the Australian people have wanted us to do for a long time. We have worked together to get this done,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard told parliament.
Ms Gillard confirmed that if the legislation passes the Senate on Thursday as expected, government officials could deploy to the two Pacific island nations as early as Friday.
The first asylum seekers could arrive within weeks and could initially be accommodated in tents.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said he was confident the measures would make a difference in the number of boats coming to Australia but cautioned against expectations they would stop altogether.
“People smugglers don’t give up easily. They’ll be out there telling lies,” Mr Bowen told Sky News.
The government will launch a regional communications campaign to warn asylum seekers of the changes, he said.
More than 200 people have already arrived on boats since former defence chief Angus Houston’s expert panel delivered its deadlock-breaking report on Monday.
Mr Bowen confirmed neither he nor Ms Gillard has yet spoken to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) about the changes.
UNHCR regional representative Richard Towle says he agrees with the “broad thrust” of the panel’s report but his agency will keep a close eye on how Nauru and Manus operate.
He expressed particular concern about the “no advantage” principle, which will ensure asylum seekers who get on boats will not be resettled any faster than those who go through regular channels, describing it as problematic and challenging.
The house rejected a coalition amendment that called on the government to restore temporary protection visas and instruct Defence to turn back asylum seeker boats.
MPs also rejected a Greens amendment that would limit offshore detention to 12 months, in a vote that Mr Bandt said had “gutted” him.
“The public wanted parliament to do something, but I don’t think it was to return us to the dark days of John Howard,” Mr Bandt said.
Major party MPs also expressed concerns with the bill.
Labor’s Melissa Parke warned of the “devastating” mental health costs of prolonged offshore detention while Liberal Judi Moylan expressed “grave” reservations about how the bill may impact on unaccompanied children asylum seekers.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said he had no problem with people initially being housed in tents.
“People who arrive illegally by boat need to be treated humanely, but they can’t expect five-star treatment or even three-star treatment,” he said.
Meanwhile, refugee supporters across the country have vowed to continue protesting against offshore processing of asylum seekers.
About two dozen people gathered outside immigration department offices in Melbourne, and held a similar protest in Sydney.
Refugee advocate Pamela Kerr told the crowd that politicians are treating asylum seekers like products to be shipped offshore, potentially for years.
“They don’t give a damn about people’s rights or people’s health,” she said to shouts of “Shame!” from the crowd.
Australia will go back to a very dark time, and this time it’s the Labor government.”
She vowed to keep protesting, saying refugee supporters are the most stubborn, long-lasting activist group since the Vietnam War.
Former refugee from Iran, Mohsen Soltany spoke at the Sydney rally, describing his ordeal in detention for four years as, “hell, worse than hell. Prison is much better than detention that’s how absolutely shocking it is,” Mr Soltany said.
Now eight years out of detention Mr Soltany is still waiting for the day his family will be able to join him in Australia. Though with the new Gillard government policy he fears it may be a very long time.
“The latest policies are appalling, I think it is shameful. We are going backwards instead of looking forwards for more humanity and compassion,” Mr Soltany said.
RAC’s solution to the Australia’s refugee issues would be to alternatively increase the intake of refugees into our country.
“We need to massively increase our humanitarian intake. Australia could easily accept heaps more refugees which would reduce the need for people to get on a boat in the first place,” spokesperson for the RAC Josh Lee said.
“The Gillard government is moving to adopt policies that are even worse, even crueller than Howard’s pacific solution…they are trying to justify this by saying it is to save lives lost at sea but this will not stop people fleeing because they are being killed,” Mr Lee said.