Medevac Bill Victory a ‘Tipping Point’ For Refugee Policy in Australia
13 February 2019 at 5:18 pm
Refugee advocates believe the success of the medical evacuation bill will be a tipping point for asylum seeker policy in Australia, after the opposition and crossbenchers handed the government a historic parliamentary defeat.
Independent MP Kerryn Phelps’ bill, allowing refugees on Manus Island and Nauru to come to Australia for medical treatment, finally passed the lower house during a drama-filled Tuesday evening in Parliament, which was followed by successful passage through the Senate on Wednesday.
Civil society groups pushed for this legislation in response to a medical crisis in Australia’s offshore detention centres that has seen 12 people die in the last five years and numerous incidents of suicide and self-harm.
Breaking: The Medivac Bill has passed the Parliament and will become law! This is a historic triumph for humanity and decency and a body blow to the toxic politics of fear and division. pic.twitter.com/hUHA9gYQtg
— Nick McKim (@NickMcKim) February 13, 2019
Jana Favero, the director of advocacy and campaigns at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), told Pro Bono News advocates were thrilled by the victory – which marked the first time in almost 80 years that a government lost a legislative vote in the lower house.
“This bill passing is absolutely a tipping point for us as a country because it shows that humanity and compassion can prevail,” Favero said.
“This bill is about sick people and doctors and it was a huge effort from civil society organisations to [help garner] bi-partisan support.”
The bill only passed after Labor made a number of amendments to widen the home affairs minister’s discretion to stop medical transfers if they believed asylum seekers posed a security risk. It also increased the decision-making time for ministers from 24 hours to 72 hours.
Despite this, Favero said the bill would still allow many critically sick asylum seekers to receive medical treatment in coming months.
“We do know there are probably hundreds of sick people. However there are safeguards in the bill to make sure that there is an orderly and efficient process,” she said.
“So we’ve estimated that there would be possibly a handful of asylum seekers [coming to Australia] a week because it does need to be managed over time.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison lamented the bill’s success, arguing it was an unacceptable breach of the nation’s border protection regime that would result in asylum seeker boats coming to Australia again and more deaths at sea.
He announced on Wednesday the government would reopen the Christmas Island detention centre in anticipation of more boat arrivals.
Today I convened a meeting of the National Security Committee. I have adopted the advice of our security and border protection officials to reopen the Christmas Island detention centre. We're taking this action to clean up the mess Bill Shorten & Labor made yesterday, once again. pic.twitter.com/KhvqrzaTf3
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) February 13, 2019
Favero slammed the government for its “scaremongering” tactics and said she hoped the Australian public would see this approach as “nothing more than racist dog whistling”.
She added there was absolutely no evidence to support the prime minister’s claims the bill would start the boats coming again.
“We have seen 800 people already transferred to Australia for medical treatment. The boats didn’t start then,” she said.
“There were also 500 people sent to the US to resettle permanently. The boats didn’t start then.
“This bill only applies to the people who are on Manus and Nauru currently, not future arrivals. Operation Sovereign Borders’ policy of turn backs is still firmly in place.”
ASRC was joined by GetUp, Human Rights Law Centre, Welcoming Australia, the Refugee Council of Australia and World Vision in congratulating the members of Parliament who worked together to create and support the medical evacuation bill.
Change is hard but today the long years of advocating paid off. Humanity triumphed over fear and I was proud to be in Parliament to see democracy and a tsunami of decency prevail. Too many people to thank, this picture captures it all – hope, joy, exhaustion, teamwork pic.twitter.com/MXrj4M1AhL
— Jana Favero (@janafavero) February 12, 2019
Kelly Nicholls, Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) spokesperson, said the safety of lives must always come first.
“Doctors have been ignored for too long. People have died as a result. Pregnant women with complications have had to wait dangerously long to receive the treatment they need,” Nicholls said.
“This bill changes the response to medical emergencies in offshore detention on Manus Island and Nauru.”
Shen Narayanasamy, human rights director with GetUp, added that this was a watershed moment in Australian political history – because the “15-year trajectory of cruelty towards asylum seekers has ended”.
“We thank the millions of people across this country who have fought so long for this victory and remember those people who have died in our name, that this bill would have saved,” Narayanasamy said.