House of Representatives

Border Protection Legislation Amendment Bill 1999

Second Reading Speech

Mr RUDDOCK (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Reconciliation)

I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

The bill that I now place before the chamber is part of the package of measures announced by the Prime Minister on 27 June 1999 in response to a massive increase in the numbers of attempts at illegal entry to Australia.

The bill is part of the government's ongoing commitment to combat the flow of unauthorised arrivals and other breaches of our laws at our borders.

The changes the bill proposes will strengthen legislative provisions relating to the prevention of the smuggling of people into Australia.

These changes will maintain the integrity of Australia's borders against attempted intru sions of the criminal elements behind most people smuggling activities.

The bill also implements a number of recommendations made by the Commonwealth Ombudsman in relation to arrangements for the detention of non-citizens fishing illegally in Australian waters.

The recent events in East Timor provide a graphic and immediate illustration of circumstances that can drive people to leave their normal places of residence and seek safe haven elsewhere.

You will be aware of the appropriate, generous and compassionate response of the Australian government and the Australian people to this tragedy.

I am sure the chamber will join with me in recognising the professionalism and courage shown by our armed services in leading the multinational force now in East Timor.

There is, however, another side to the mass movement of people. This is the cynical worldwide trade in smuggling people from one country to another.

It is a trade which preys on the misery and hopes of people. It is a criminal industry that the United Nations estimates has a turnover of $7 billion a year and involving up to four million people.

It is a trade which is increasing in scale and sophistication, and one which is now targeting Australia.

It is a trade which taxes the ability of law enforcement agencies to respond effectively.

It is a trade which requires a strong, determined response from governments.

The trade is often closely related to extortion, prostitution, drug trafficking and other criminal activities.

The true concern of the criminals behind this trade is profit.

These criminals have no concern for the safety of the people they move, as was shown only recently with the tragic sinking of an unseaworthy vessel off Christmas Island which took the lives of 15 people. These people were all on their way to Australia.

These criminals can also deal in large numbers of people. Earlier this year a ship was organised which was to leave Kenya with around 2,000 people of Somali descent on board. These people were all on their way to Australia.

It is a trade that needs to be dealt with before more lives are put at risk.

The activities of these criminals violate the sovereign rights of states to determine who can enter their territory.

The people being smuggled are, in most cases, not genuine refugees seeking haven in the first available safe country. They are instead young migrants from less developed countries who are seeking to work in developed countries.

Australia is increasingly a preferred destination and unwilling recipient of the attention of these people.

In 1997-98 for example, there were 13 unauthorised boat arrivals in Australia with 157 people on board.

In 1998-99, this had increased to 42 boats with 926 unauthorised people on board. This year, to date, there have been 50 boats carrying 1,267 people, and we are just one-quarter of the way into the year.

These figures do not include the much larger number of persons detected and deterred by our overseas posts.

Clearly this is a significant problem for this country and one that demands our immediate attention.

The government is responding quickly to the increase in this criminal trade.

The first of the influx of Chinese boats arrived in December last year, travelling at the conclusion of the monsoon season in the Northern Hemisphere.

A total of 471 Chinese nationals arrived, most targeting our eastern coastline.

This could happen again this year.

We need this legislation to be able to respond should it re-occur.

If we are to ensure that Australia is no longer seen as a soft target the changes made by this bill have to be in place well before the end of this year. This legislation will be only the first legislation that we will be proposing to deal with these problems.

It should be understood that Australia is not alone in adopting a more active approach to people smuggling.

The United States of America, for example, has announced its intention to broaden the scope of its border enforcement powers beyond its territorial waters. Canada is also reviewing its laws to combat this criminal activity.

I expect that other countries will soon follow. The fact is that if we are not at the forefront in dealing with these issues through legislation of the sort that I am proposing, and other measures, we will be seen as a more attractive destination to the people smugglers who are arranging this sort of trafficking.

It may be helpful if I outline an example of where Australia's existing laws to combat people smuggling are inadequate.

Earlier this year `snakeheads' as they are called in China or people smugglers, from Fujian, conspired to bring a boatload of would-be illegal entrants to Australia.

The Fujian group were attempting a totally clandestine entry, attempting to avoid detection and to disappear into the Australian community.

The vessels involved in the Fujian operation were steel-hulled and equipped with modern navigational and communications equipment.

These ships travelled, by a circuitous route, through international waters, across the top of Papua New Guinea, before targeting Australia's eastern coast.

They avoided contact with those neighbouring countries whose officials might alert Australia of their imminent arrival.

The snakeheads coordinated the route taken by the vessel and arranged for accomplices onshore in Australia to receive and conceal the ships' human cargo.

Their plans were to exploit the limitations of our current laws.

The `mother ship' was to wait in international waters. Accomplices in Australia were to travel out to the vessel in high-powered ocean-going speed boats that had been specifically purchased for this purpose.

Those accomplices were to ferry the passengers to Australia under cover of darkness.

The mother ship, relieved of its human cargo, would then sail back to China without being detected or arrested.

As it stands, the captain, crew and the snakeheads in command were immune to Australian law, which does not extend to people smugglers sitting so far off Australia.

They were beyond the reach of our laws.

The legislation that I present today is designed to ensure that these smugglers, operating on mother ships sitting off Australia's coast, will not be immune.

They will not continue to be beyond the reach of Australian law.

The bill will create new powers that will allow our officers to undertake enforcement action beyond our territorial waters, and to arrest and prosecute those involved in attempts to breach our sovereignty in this way.

The bill ensures that the investigatory and enforcement powers held by officers of front-line border agencies are complementary so they may function more effectively and efficiently on behalf of Australia.

The powers proposed will enhance the ability of our officers to deal with other forms of illegal activity they encounter at sea such as drug smuggling and illegal fishing.

The bill achieves these aims by making amendments to the Migration Act 1958, the Customs Act 1901 and the Fisheries Management Act 1991.

This bill revises and enhances existing powers of investigation and enforcement at sea in the context of our obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and customary international law.

Amendments to the Migration Act and the Customs Act will allow the detaining, forfeiture, seizure and, as necessary, disposal of ships and aircraft used in people smuggling operations.

In addition, vessels found to be unseaworthy, a risk to safety or navigation or a threat to the environment, will be able to be moved or destroyed.

The main target of the bill is the smuggling of human cargo by sea.

However, future attempts could also be made by air. Accordingly the bill gives our main border agencies similar powers over aircraft being used in this criminal trade.

To ensure the safety of our officers, in the increasingly violent world of people smuggling, amendments to the Customs Act will allow Customs officers to carry approved firearms.

They will also be able to carry other approved items of personal defence equipment in the performance of their duty.

Customs officers will also be officers for the purposes of the Fisheries Management Act and carry approved firearms in matters relating to surveillance and enforcement against illegal foreign fishers.

The measures contained in this bill are a major part of the government's strategy for dealing appropriately with unauthorised arrivals. Another element of this strategy is contained in the Migration Legislation Amendment (Judicial Review) Bill 1998.

That bill is presently before the Senate, and its passage through the parliament is crucial, in this government's view, to assist in combating this heinous trade.

This bill will limit the grounds for judicial review of migration matters, particularly for unauthorised arrivals, and provide a clear message that people will not be able to use the judicial review system simply to prolong their stay in Australia.

The passage of that bill will help ensure that the snakeheads and other people smugglers cannot hold out false hopes that an extended stay in Australia can be easily arranged.

I encourage the opposition to take a broader view of that legislation and this current bill in the context of the issue of people smuggling into this Australia.

At this time, I would remind the chamber that there is a qualitative difference between organised people smuggling and the irregular movement of people in need of safe haven.

Australia recognises that genuine refugees are sometimes caught up in the criminally organised people smuggling operations. However, our refugee determination system works to identify those who are genuinely refugees and accord them the protection, irrespective of how they gain entry to this country.

It is the very generosity of our refugee determination system that some see as an incentive to make their way to Australia illegally.

For example, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people from Iraq and Afghanistan who are arriving illegally by boat. Of the 378 people who arrived by boat in July and August this year, 262 were from Iraq and 71 from Afghanistan.

That is more than twice the number of Iraqis that arrived in the full financial year 1998-99.

One of the factors behind this dramatic increase may be the perception that past illegal arrivals from those countries had been successful in engaging Australia's protection obligations.

These perceptions have led to expectations.

I was disturbed to hear reports of some of these arrivals asking for Pert 2-in-1 shampoo immediately upon arrival in Australia.

Some of them have arrived with details of medical treatment that they wanted to receive whilst in detention, including dental work, and often asking to see orthodontists something I think many Australians would like to be able to do free of charge.

We have had more than one case of demands being made for very expensive medical treatment with the full expectation that the Australian taxpayer would foot the bill.

Others have been critical of the conditions in which they are being detained.

Whatever the reasons for the increase, the fact remains that travelling to Australia by boat is a hazardous undertaking.

It places people in leaking, rusty hulks which are often prone to breakdown.

It places them at the mercy of the weather.

Most of all, it makes these people vulnerable to criminals behind the smuggling trade.

It is these factors that require that this parliament deal with this bill quickly, for it to gain passage and come into force before December of this year. It is also for this reason that we need to pass the other legislation that is before the Senate, and the further legislation that the government will be proposing to deal with these matters.

I was heartened to read that the shadow minister for employment, training and population had placed a motion before the House indicating the utmost concern about the activities of people smugglers.

I trust that this concern will result in unequivocal support for this bill and the other legislation for which the government will be seeking the support of this parliament.

This bill also proposes a number of amendments to the Fisheries Management Act to allow for the detention of foreign fishermen who are suspected of fisheries violations.

These amendments flow from a recent report on this issue by the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

Consequential amendments to the Migration Act will provide a scheme by which these fishermen will be taken to hold a visa immediately upon enforcement action by fisheries officers.

This new visa will come into effect automatically for the duration of the period of detention of persons suspected of fisheries violations.

Once fisheries detention is concluded, any continued detention will be under existing provisions of the Migration Act. Among other things, these provisions enable any custodial sentences to be served.

The bill also makes a number of miscellaneous amendments to the Migration Act. Some of these changes are consequential to the main thrust of the bill and act to streamline the operational aspects of enforcement practice.

Others revise existing provisions relating to the bringing of unauthorised arrivals into Australia where those persons need to travel to Australia for various reasons.

The bill provides for such circumstances and ensures that officers implementing these returns are not acting contrary to the law and therefore vulnerable to prosecution. It also ensures that those returned will be detained on arrival and will not reactivate entitlements that they had already used.

In summary, this bill is part of a package announced by the Prime Minister on 27 June 1999 to combat international trade in people.

This bill will allow Australia to increase its capacity to detect and to deter people smuggling.

It will ensure that the organisers of this criminal activity are not beyond the reach of our laws.

The government has responded promptly and unequivocally to this growing and real criminal activity.

I ask that all non-government parties support us in our endeavours to combat this kind of international crime and ensure that this bill becomes law before the end of this year.

I commend the bill to the House and I table the explanatory memorandum to the bill.

Debate (on motion by Mr Horne) adjourned.