The Australian government on Wednesday said it would reopen a mothballed island detention camp in anticipation of a new wave of asylum seekers arriving by boat after the Australian parliament passed legislation that would give sick asylum seekers easier access to mainland hospitals.
The Christmas Island immigration detention camp, south of Jakarta, Indonesia, was a favorite target of people smugglers who brought asylum seekers from Asia, Africa and the Middle East in rickety boats from Indonesian ports before the trade virtually stopped in the past few years.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said a security committee of his Cabinet agreed to reopen the camp on the advice of senior security officials.
The decision was made before the Australian Senate passed legislation 36 votes to 34 that would allow doctors instead of bureaucrats to decide which asylum seekers in camps on the Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru can fly to Australia for hospital treatment.
Morrison’s conservative government argued that the bill, passed 75 to 74 by the Australian House of Representatives on Tuesday, would undermine Australia’s tough refugee policy.
The policy banishes asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat to the Pacific island camps in a bid to deter other asylum seekers from making the perilous voyage.
“My job now is to ensure that the boats don’t come,” Morrison told reporters. “My job now is to do everything in my power and the power of the government to ensure what the parliament has done to weaken our border does not result in boats coming to Australia.”
Opposition leader Bill Shorten on Tuesday redrafted the amendments passed by the Senate in December in an attempt to make the law less likely to attract a new wave of asylum seekers, who used to arrive in Australia at a rate of more than a boat a day.
One provision says that only the 1,000 asylum seekers held on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and not any future arrivals, would be considered for medical evacuation under the new regime.
Refugee advocates and lawyers had lobbied senators to back the amendments passed by the House, saying that delays in medical treatment had cost asylum seekers’ lives and left others at risk, including rape victims who had endured traumatic late-term abortions.
“Yesterday was a victory for the conscience of this nation,” Asylum Seeker Resource Center chief executive Kon Karapanagiotidis said of the House vote.
Sick asylum seekers often have to fight the Australian government in court for permission to be transferred to an Australian hospital.
Law firm Maurice Blackburn welcomed the law change.
“It should never have had to come to this point, but it is evident this bill was urgently needed to force action,” lawyer Jennifer Kanis said in a statement. “In the last year alone, we have had to take court action repeatedly to help secure the medical evacuation of 26 ill people on Nauru, many of these children.”
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