Australia yesterday removed the right of doctors to order that sick asylum seekers be evacuated from two remote Pacific detention centers for medical treatment, a repeal that opponents said risks the lives of refugees.
Under Australia’s immigration policy, asylum seekers intercepted at sea are sent to camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. They can never settle in Australia.
Independent lawmakers and the opposition joined forces in February to give doctors the right to order sick asylum seekers be sent to Australia if they required medical care.
After securing re-election in May, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that his government would seek to repeal the legislation, although he needed the support of independent lawmakers as the coalition does not enjoy a majority in the Australian Senate.
After weeks of negotiations, the repeal legislation passed the Senate by 37 votes to 35.
“You can take advice from doctors, but doctors aren’t elected. They aren’t accountable to the public,” Australian independent lawmaker Jacqui Lambie, who cast the decisive vote, told the Senate.
About 500 people remain in the two centers, many suffering mental health issues after more than six years in detention, aid organizations say.
The UN has repeatedly criticized Australia’s remote detention centers, insisting they lack adequate healthcare facilities.
“To now deny medical professionals from taking decisions in patients’ best interests — and to effectively hand that power back to unqualified officials ... puts those most sick and vulnerable at risk,” Doctors Without Borders Australia executive director Paul McPhun said in a statement.
Morrison rejected those allegations, insisting Canberra has provided significant medical aid, while those unable to get necessary treatment can be sent to Australia if the minister for home affairs approves it.
As a result, Morrison said the medical evacuation legislation is unnecessary and undermines Canberra’s border policy, designed to discourage asylum seekers from undertaking dangerous sea voyages to Australia.
In 2016, Australia agreed a deal with former US president Barack Obama to offer refuge to up to 1,250 asylum seekers.
US President Donald Trump’s administration said that it would only honor that deal to maintain a strong relationship with Australia, and then only on condition that refugees satisfied strict checks.
About 650 refugees have been resettled in the US, with a further 250 in Papua New Guinea and Nauru approved to go at a future date, Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton told reporters in Canberra.
Australia has rejected offers from New Zealand to take a further 150 asylum seekers, fearing refugees would use it as a “backdoor entry” to Australia.
Local media reported that Lambie has sought a commitment that Canberra would now accept Wellington’s offer.
Morrison and Lambie declined to comment.
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