Senator LUDLAM: I have a couple of questions relating to Burma.
Mr Grigson: We will go back to Mr Cox.
Senator LUDLAM: Thanks. Welcome back. Sorry about the chopping and changing. I presume you are aware that the UNHCR has made statements quite recently which were picked up in the Myanmar Times that the time for large-scale refugee return into Burma, particularly from the eastern part of the country, is not yet ripe. Are you familiar with those comments?
Mr Cox: No, I am not. I have not seen those reports.
Senator LUDLAM: I wonder if it might be useful for me to table a copy of this for you just so that you can get a bit of a sense of what I am after. While you are waiting to get your hands on that, could you just give us the government's present policy on refugee return. As you are probably aware, I am particularly interested in the eastern part of the country for these purposes.
Mr Cox: Could you explain what you mean by 'refugee return' in the Myanmar case. In the Australian area, that is a matter for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. In this context, could you explain, please.
Senator LUDLAM: Sorry. I beg your pardon. There are at least half a million people displaced from Burma/Myanmar onto the Thai side of the border. Australia has done some very good work funding some of the aid organisations, health clinics and so on and the camps that operate in Thailand. I am asking you for the government's policy on whether, as the UNHCR believes, it is not yet time for large-scale transition and movement of people back into the country.
Mr Cox: I would have to take that on notice, I think. The issue of refugee returns is a matter largely for other parts of the department, so for me I think it would be better to take that on notice and we could give you a written answer.
Senator LUDLAM: Which parts? I hope you are not misunderstanding. I am talking not about repatriation of people of people from Australia but about people who are presently stranded in Thailand who might be encouraged to go home. I will give you the context. Right before the change of government, former Foreign Minister Bob Carr made what I believe is a serious error in judgement in proposing-that got Senator Brandis's attention!
Senator Brandis: Unbelievable!
Senator LUDLAM: He proposed to defund the Mae Tao health clinic in Mae Sot. This is one of the key institutional supports for primary health care on both the Thai side and the Burma side of the border. We worked with
Minister Carr and his predecessors, and you, over a period of two or three years to change Australian government policy on cross-border aid, and we eventually succeeded in that effort, and right at the point where that policy change had been made Senator Carr decided that we would not be funding the clinic and the various other services anymore. That decision, I understand after speaking to Dr Cynthia Maung-who incidentally won the Sydney Peace Prize last week-is that it is the Australian government's view that it might be time for all those people to return to Karen and Kachin states. That is where I am getting to, I suppose: the funding decision was contingent on somebody in the department or in the minister's office believing that it was time for all those people to go home. The UNHCR disagrees. I am trying to get your view.
Mr Cox: I think the government's view on this would be that, if there is a possibility for people to return voluntarily, they should. We continue to support the refugee centres, though, through a range of different NGOs. I do not think we have cut our overall funding to refugee support. I think that continues and this evening our colleagues from the aid side of the department could perhaps provide you with more information about our
support for refugees. But there is certainly continued support for refugee voluntary return. There is certainly no decision that people should now return home.
Senator LUDLAM: Forced repatriation?
Mr Cox: involuntarily.
Senator LUDLAM: I am pleased to hear that. The only condition I would ask you to keep in mind is that closing down the only substantial healthcare support for people in that part of the country significantly reduces not just quality of life but the ability of people to stay in those refugee camps at all. If Australia is defunding the Mae Tao Clinic-and that is the one I am specifically interested in-and some of the ancillary and associated services, that makes it very difficult for those people to stay where they are.
CHAIR: We will have to finish there, Senator, because of the time.
Senator LUDLAM: Could I just put one-