Yuko Narushima, Immigration Correspondent, Sydney Morning Herald
June 24, 2009
A BILL to abolish detention debts for refugees are set to pass the Senate and the Coalition will splinter over its hardline position in the lower house. Almost $9 million in debt will be lifted from as many as 474 refugees, who are charged for the cost of their own detention.
Labor announced in March its plan to cancel the debts. Yesterday it won the backing of both independent cross-benchers. The Family First senator, Steve Fielding, was unflinching. “We must show greater compassion to our refugees and I am 100 per cent opposed to any policy that would leave refugees with a debt hanging over their head,” he said.
An obligation for criminal detainees to reimburse the Government remained. Illegal fishermen and people smugglers would continue to be billed for transport, accommodation and food costs associated with being locked up – $125.40 a day.
Senator Nick Xenophon also criticised the existing set-up. “It’s petty, it’s ill considered and he’ll be voting with the Government,” Mr Xenophon’s spokesman said.
The five Greens Senators have long supported the abolition of detention debt. South Australia’s Sarah Hanson-Young said they were “a flagrant way of adding insult to injury to those who come to Australia seeking our assistance and protection”.
Recent figures showed the administrative costs of chasing the debt were greater than the 3 per cent of debt ever recovered. Further, the burden of having a debt was detrimental to the mental health of former detainees and restricted their capacity to travel.
“Debt recovery under the existing system is so low as to be virtually ineffective,” the Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Citizenship, Laurie Ferguson, said this month, adding that most debts were eventually waived. “The Commonwealth considers that it has a moral, rather than a legal, obligation, to extinguish the debt.”
The voting intentions of senators became clearer yesterday, with Coalition infighting on the issue set to intensify in the lower house when debate starts today. As many as 15 Opposition members were prepared to speak out against the bill and moderates Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent, Judi Moylan and Dana Vale reserved the right to cross the floor.
Detention debts have proved problematic for the Coalition as it attacks the Government for “softening” its policy. Compounding the delicacy of the issue is immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone’s seat on a committee that supported the changes which she said yesterday would help people smugglers attract more clients.
“We don’t believe that we need any more signals to people smugglers to make offers to asylum seekers even more likely to be taken up,” she said. The Victorian Liberal Judith Troeth was prepared to abstain from a vote in the Senate, giving the Government some breathing room on numbers needed to see the laws pass.
Dr Stone denied the party was split. “The Liberal Party is a broad church,” she said. “We don’t throw people out of the party who have a different opinion on some issues.” Last night the Government said it had intercepted another boat of asylum seekers near Ashmore Reef. The 49 passengers and four crew were being taken to Christmas Island.