The conservative Australian government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison faced a significant defeat in the lower house of parliament on Tuesday after the opposition Labor Party forced through amendments that would allow doctors far more sway in bringing over asylum seekers stranded in offshore camps.
Thousands of asylum seekers have been held offshore on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island since 2013, under conditions harshly criticized by human rights groups. About 1,000 remain on both islands, according to government estimates, as resettlement efforts and medical evacuations have dragged on. Many of the remaining asylum seekers have attempted to commit suicide or have suffered severe psychological distress, human rights groups say. The bill would allow the asylum seekers to enter Australia for medical reasons with doctors’ recommendation.
The hard-line policy directed at those arriving by sea was meant to deter human traffickers from bringing in migrants. But as news of the grim conditions at the camps has spread, Australia’s international image has been damaged, despite a history of accepting refugees and asylum seekers who go through legal channels.
Tuesday’s vote still needs to be passed by the upper house of parliament but is expected to be approved.
For the Morrison government, the defeat could be a sign of worse to come, with elections scheduled for May. The conservative Liberal Party lost its narrow majority in the lower house of parliament last October. Despite the government’s most recent defeat, Morrison rejected calls on Tuesday for elections to be moved to an earlier date.
For Morrison, the vote is also a personal defeat. Shortly after the camps were reopened in 2013, the then-immigration minister helped expand them, for which Australia subsequently rejected responsibility.
As the framework that has so far been the underlying principle of the offshore camps began to fall apart on Tuesday, Morrison lashed out at the opposition Labor Party for the bill’s “damaging impact.” Australia’s governing Liberal Party on Tuesday voiced concerns that the transfers could encourage smugglers to embark on the boat journey to Australia more frequently in the coming months.
But the opposition maintains that further amendments to the bill, including the possibility for the government to reject transfers, would be sufficient deterrence. The current bill also only applies to asylum seekers already on the islands, not to possible future arrivals.
If the amended bill is approved by the upper house of the Australian parliament, the law could take effect within days and allow hundreds of remaining asylum seekers to be transferred. Under the new legislation, a medical referral from two doctors would be sufficient to initiate a transfer to Australia, except if the home affairs minister intervenes with security concerns. Previously, the responsibility for those transfers lay with Australian public servants, spurring strong criticism from doctors and medical associations, who argued that far too few individuals in urgent need of treatment were granted help.
Doctors would now be able to make such an assessment not only if a patient’s life was at risk but also if they felt as though their patients were not receiving adequate treatment in Nauru or Manus Island. Human rights groups hope that proving the despair of many asylum seekers left on the islands should be relatively easy. Criticism of camp conditions has come from the U.N.'s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, who branded them “inhuman.” In a report late last year, Doctors Without Borders warned that about 30 percent of its patients on Nauru had attempted suicide.
Officials and human rights groups were especially worried about children on the islands, some of whom were suffering from a severe trauma called “resignation syndrome,” in which they had lost the will to live. As international pressure on the Australian government to release children from the islands mounted, officials finally allowed all of them to be evacuated or resettled.
The Australian government has celebrated the resettlements as a success, but Freya Dinshaw, a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Center, warned that there remains “an urgent medical crisis on Nauru and Manus” for adult asylum seekers. In an interview last week, she cited the deaths of two people on Manus and Nauru last year “because they did not receive appropriate medical treatment, joining 10 others who died before them.”
Despite continuous need for psychological counseling, the work of doctors on the ground has become more difficult in recent months. Nauru asked Doctors Without Borders to leave the island nation within 24 hours in October. Since then, it has launched an effort to provide psychological support to patients remotely.
Under the new law, the organization’s Australia-registered doctors may be able to initiate medical transfers of asylum seekers from Nauru or Manus Island without being physically present there.
One of the individuals held there for years is the Iranian Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani, who was recently awarded Australia’s biggest literature award, the Victorian Prize for Literature, worth more than $70,000. Boochani was not allowed into Australia to attend the award ceremony in Melbourne last month. In his award-winning book “No Friend But the Mountains,” Boochani described life in the now-closed Manus Island offshore camp.
Like other asylum seekers, Boochani still remains involuntarily on Manus Island, as he is neither able to enter Australia nor go back to his home country, Iran, where he fears prosecution over his journalistic work. Tuesday’s vote could finally allow him to leave the island for Australia.
“It’s a historical moment for all of the refugees on Manus and Nauru,” Boochani wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, after the governmental defeat. “Great to see the Australian parliament finally vote for humanity.”
Siobhán O’Grady contributed to this report.
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