Mr HAWKE (Mitchell—Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection) (18:40): I rise today to raise the very important issue and the ongoing challenge posed by forced marriages in Australia and, in particular, forced marriages relating to children in our community. The Australian government is committed to working with civil society and states and territories to combat forced marriage, and to protect and support the victims of this very challenging issue.
Anecdotally, we are seeing that reports continue to be raised by communities, by states and by state ministers for the protection of children which show that, while there may not be a huge number of cases being presented, we are seeing a greater prevalence due to the laws that the Australian government has put into place. For the benefit of the House, I will remind the House that the Australian government criminalised forced marriage in March 2013. This was to send a clear message that this practice is completely unacceptable in Australia. Australia's forced marriage offences cover registered relationships as well as those formed by cultural or religious ceremonies, and apply regardless of the age of the victim.
The forced marriage offences carry a maximum penalty of nine years imprisonment, and in 2015 the Australian government amended the forced marriage offences to ensure that children under the age of 16 are presumed unable to consent to marriage due to their age—also a long overdue change. To date there have been no prosecutions for forced marriage offences in Australia, and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection contributes to Australia's whole-of-government response to human trafficking, including forced marriage, by administering the Human Trafficking Visa Framework.
The reason I raise this today is that we are seeing good work being done by communities, by teachers, by health professionals and by people engaged in this space. This work is about awareness and ensuring that those people, even those from recently arrived migrant communities, people with different cultural backgrounds and people who have come from countries where forced marriage is lawful—and there are hundreds of countries in which these arrangements are lawful—understand that this is unlawful in Australia, against our culture and traditions and against our law for people to force other people to marry, or to force children to marry.
Awareness is perhaps one of the most important things to continue actively working on with the community. It was really good to see the Minister for Justice, in November 2015, launch My Blue Sky—Australia's first comprehensive website dedicated purely to preventing and addressing forced marriage. It provides resources for service providers and for people in or at risk of forced marriage and offers free legal advice, including via text and email, understanding the very difficult challenges that are posed by this serious issue in different cultures and to people from different backgrounds. My Blue Sky was developed by Anti-Slavery Australia using Commonwealth funding awarded by the Minister for Justice. Also during 2014-15, funding was given to many different communities for human rights and different anti-trafficking organisations to raise awareness of forced marriage.
I can record that this is having an impact in accordance with the Australian government's framework and with the forced marriage community packs that have been sent out in consultation with civil society organisations. From 2014 and 2015 the variety of materials—the safety plans, the booklets, the comprehensive information and the packs that are available through the Attorney-General's Department in the different languages of all the different backgrounds that are relevant—has also had a great impact. On the other side of this awareness issue, it is also very important to note that during 2015 the Attorney-General's Department, the Australian Federal Police and Anti-Slavery Australia held a series of workshops in each state and territory and every capital city to raise awareness of forced marriage. The workshops are aimed at raising awareness of forced marriage issues including indicators and referral pathways among frontline officers and service providers in both civil and government organisations. This is having an impact and it is leading to more identifications of forced marriages and potential forced marriages within Australia, which I am sure all members will agree is a serious sign.
At the front lines of this, we are seeing our community service ministers in our states raising the extent of forced marriages involving children. Indeed, the Minister for Family and Community Services in New South Wales raised, in particular, the extent of children in New South Wales in forced marriages that they are becoming aware of and the availability of the appropriate support services. Minister Hazzard has indicated that about 52 per cent of the forced marriage cases dealt with by the New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services have involved girls under the age of 15 and that a number of refuges in New South Wales are housing child victims of forced marriage—a completely unacceptable situation. While the Australian government can sometimes find it difficult to verify forced marriage statistics that are produced by certain departments due to the complexities involved in these cases, I think it is vital that we understand that the majority of forced marriage referrals that are received relate to teenage girls, young girls and vulnerable girls who are Australian citizens and residents. Obviously more coordinated action between the Commonwealth and the states is required. Australian governments of all persuasions have now been committed to this process for the last 3½ years. It is a process which we need to continue. Indeed, the Australian government also confirms its ongoing commitment to this process of working in a more coordinated way with the states to identify a clearer picture of the extent to which these incidences are occurring.
I want to particularly note a journalist, Marina Freri from the ABC, who on Monday 26 September drew this issue into the public domain—again, to help raise awareness. She put together an excellent, in-depth program about some of the cultural practices going on in Sydney and raised the concerns of the New South Wales state government as indicated by Minister Hazzard. Her report is very comprehensive and I recommend it to members of the House. It delves into the different agencies that deal with this issue—the Red Cross and all of the frontline people, including teachers. She has gathered a series of interviews and refers to points from some academics, such as people who work with Anti-Slavery Australia. The program also included some significant work that she did in dealing with people who have become aware of these cases and in some cases have been involved in them. This kind of activism by journalists is absolutely necessary in this field and we do need to continue to ensure that awareness is being promoted not only by all levels of government—all of our anti-trafficking and anti-slavery organisations, our law enforcement agencies and our family and community service agencies—but also through the media and through our cultural awareness that we can promote through the media.
We need to understand that issues like this can be very difficult to locate and define, and we have to ensure that we address them at the right time. I think members here will understand that while we have come up with the right legal framework and the right definition under the Commonwealth Criminal Code in dealing with this—the Australian government has done its bit in defining it in law and taking a strident approach in working with criminal agencies—we have to recognise that we have to tackle this issue at all levels. We have to understand that people accept in Australia that it is not just criminal but it is against Australian community standards for anyone to be forced into marriage for any reason and that Australian citizen children are not to be sent offshore in forced marriage arrangements. I look forward to working with states and territories in the role that I serve in as Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.
The Australian government, of course, provides visas for victims who are in difficult situations—who are here in Australia and who may be the potential victims of forced trafficking and forced marriage arrangements. I continue to be open to any solution to help assist the community make sure that people who have come from different countries with different standards and different practices understand that, under Australian law and under Australian standards, forced marriage—and forced marriage, in particular, of children and vulnerable children—is completely illegal and unacceptable. I commend the approach that Minister Hazzard has taken in raising this with the Commonwealth. I certainly look forward to other states helping the Commonwealth in identifying these practices and working with our whole-of-government systems, our education systems, our family and community service systems and our frontline workers to ensure that awareness is high, that they work not only to ensure that we interdict, where possible, any of these arrangements but also with any people that have come from other cultures so they understand that, from an Australian cultural standpoint and from an Australian legal standpoint, forced marriage is illegal and unacceptable and the forced marriage of children in particular is illegal and unacceptable.