Mr Speaker, Australia's recent history has seen extraordinary challenges to our border security. Under the Labor Government there were 50,000 Illegal Maritime Arrivals on over 800 boats. To deal with this influx the Labor Government opened 17 detention centres onshore and two Regional Processing Centres offshore. Over 8,000 children were put into detention and sadly there were at least 1,200 deaths at sea.
The way in which the Coalition has responded to these challenges has been critical to maintaining the confidence of Australians in our immigration policy and practices. These policies and practices were not developed from a basis of fear; how could they be because more than one in four Australian residents born overseas and close to half the population with at least one parent born elsewhere, immigrants and their decedents are foundational to Australia's human capital and social fabric.
Mr Speaker, horrific images of people drowning trying to make it to our shores are etched in our national consciousness. Perilous voyages were arranged by people smugglers, criminal syndicates motived only by greed and trading in human misery and it had to stop. The Coalition's response to Labor's policy chaos has been strong and consistent. Since coming to Government the Coalition has diligently set about cleaning up Labor's border protection mess.
The Government's reforms of our border protection policies has sent the message to people smugglers that they cannot offer a path to Australia. Life in Australia is not an illicit commodity to be sold to the desperate and vulnerable at a great profit. I am proud of the Government's record at the border because under the Coalition there have been now over 830 days since a successful illegal boat arrival. There have been no deaths at sea. We have closed 17 detention centres and we removed those children from detention.
Today, I introduce legislation which will bolster the Government's border protection infrastructure under Operation Sovereign Borders. The purpose of the Migration Legislation Amendment Regional Processing Cohort Bill 2016 is to reinforce the Government's longstanding policy that people who travel here illegally by boat will never be settled in this country. The Bill will amend the Migration Act to further strengthen Australia's maritime border protection arrangements by barring certain Illegal Maritime Arrivals who are subject to regional processing from applying for an Australian visa.
The legislation will apply to people transferred to a regional processing country after 19 July 2013, including people who are currently in a regional processing country, have left a regional processing country and are in another country, are in Australia awaiting transfer back to a regional processing country and who are taken to a regional processing country in the future. This includes people temporarily transferred from regional processing countries to Australia for medical treatment and those who have since settled in another country or returned home.
This legislation importantly is consistent with the announcement by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who when announcing the signing of the Regional Resettlement Arrangement with Papua New Guinea on 19 July 2013 declared and I quote: "from now on any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees."
The bar will apply to all visas, both temporary and permanent. It is critical that the bar apply to all visas to Australia. Any visa that allows a former Illegal Maritime Arrival to come to Australia has the potential to provide a pathway to permanent residence and we cannot and will not leave the door open for people smugglers to find a backdoor, once again into our country.
Operation Sovereign Borders has successfully halted the criminal people smuggling networks and strengthened our borders to ensure that any future attempts to reach Australia illegally by boat will fail. But we cannot afford to become complacent and risk a return to the time when over a 1,000 men, women and children drowned at sea.
It is lost on many in this debate, and in particular on the Leader of the Opposition, but the Australian public understands the very clear fact that there are now over 14,000 people in Indonesia alone waiting to get onto boats to come to Australia to provide a new life for them. The way of our country, the way of this Government is to provide support to refugees – and in record numbers – but that we will continue to do that the right way.
We need to recognise that thousands of people this year alone have drowned on the Mediterranean, amongst many hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of people that seek to make the perilous journey into Europe and other parts of the western world. We need to recognise that this problem will be with us for our lifetimes. This is not a problem that has gone away. Yes, we have been able to deal successfully in turning back now almost 30 ventures. We have, through Operation Sovereign Borders, with the compliance of 16 commonwealth agencies, including our intelligence agencies, been able to deal with the immediacy of this threat and we have been able to deal with the legacy left us by Labor.
But make no mistake that this problem has not evaporated. These people smugglers have not gone away and in particular if people believe that the door in Europe has now closed for them, they will make a path to Sri Lanka, to Vietnam, to Indonesia, to elsewhere to make their onward journey to this country – and this Government is not going to preside over a re-emergence of boat arrivals because we are not going to allow those 17 detention centres to be reopened, we are not going to allow the 2,000 children in detention – a legacy we inherited when we came to Government – and we've got those 2,000 children out of detention. Most importantly we are not going to allow the deaths at sea of innocent men, women and children.
Now, people can bring all sorts of views and compassion to this debate, but the reality is that this Government has demonstrated how to deal with this problem effectively over the course of the last three years. When Kevin Rudd came into power in 2007 there were four people in detention, including no children; four people including no children and yet Labor presided over a mess where people smugglers took control of our borders and it cannot be repeated.
Mr Speaker under this amended law the Minister of the day will have the discretion to lift the bar if it is in the public interest and allow a visa application to be made. The discretion may be exercised in a range of circumstances, such as meeting international legal obligations or where individual circumstances justify special consideration. In addition, the bar will not apply to persons who are under 18 years of age at the time they were first transferred to a regional processing country. The Bill also contains transitional arrangements to ensure that small numbers of former transferees who have already been given permission to apply for a visa in Australia will not have that application affected by this proposal.
This legislation sends a strong message to people smugglers and those considering travelling illegally to Australia by boat that Australia's borders are now stronger than ever.
The Government is serious about border protection and the measures in this Bill underscore that commitment and on that basis I commend this Bill to the House.