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Medevac Bill passing set to save lives

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There was jubilation in Parliament as the bill was passed (Screenshot via YouTube)

The passing of the Medevac Bill shows a rare display of parliamentary compassion towards human lives, writes Eleanor Green.

THE RECENT MEDICAL EVACUATION BILL put forward by Labor and passed in the Senate will make medical transfers from offshore detention centres easier, giving hope to over 1,000 people. This includes four children, desperately awaiting transfer to safety.

This is one of a few rare occurrences where a government has been defeated in a vote on legislation. The Bill has been repeatedly bashed by the Liberal Government, with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton saying that the policy would “trash” offshore processing. It would give the Minister for Immigration less power in deciding whether asylum seekers will be transferred to Australia on medical grounds, although they still remain the final arbiter of the decision.

The Bill, which passed the Senate yesterday, will mean that treating doctors will be able to decide whether asylum seekers need to be transferred to Australia and only in the situation that either a second board of high-level health professionals decide that they do not need to be transferred, or that their transfer would be prejudicial to national security, can the decision be vetoed. The level of threat to national security must be determined under the ASIO Act.

Ultimately, this Bill will make it less likely for deaths of asylum seekers in detention to occur. Since 2010, there have been 12 deaths in offshore detention centres and 37 deaths in detention centres across Australia. 

Although most of the children have been transferred from Nauru Detention Centre to the mainland, there are still four children remaining in onshore detention centres. These children have been in detention for up to five years, and suffer from severe trauma and health problems. Under new laws, this could be considered sufficient medical grounds for the children to be removed from detention. However, there is a lack of similar legislation on medical transfers for asylum seekers in mainland detention centres.

In response to the passing of the Bill, the Government has decided to re-open the abandoned Christmas Island Detention Centre, cautioning an anticipated influx of asylum seekers arriving by boat. Scott Morrison has stressed, “My job now is to ensure that the boats don't come” and has assured the public he will do everything in his power to ensure that this change in legislation will not weaken border security or result in more asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat. He promises to repeal the “foolish law” if re-elected to government in this year’s election.

The recent loss in the House of Representatives is one in a series of circumstances which show that the Government’s asylum seeker policy is unsupported by a large portion of Parliament. The financial consequences for their treatment of asylum seekers are also growing. The Government has recently been sued over the rape of a ten-year-old boy while on Nauru. A class-action lawsuit by asylum seekers who were detained on Manus Island cost the Government $70 million.

One asylum seeker family received a payout from the Commonwealth of $100,000 in compensation, plus a further confidential sum, after the Australian Government:

‘...breached its duty of care by failing to provide adequate medical assessments, care and treatment, failing to prevent exposure to traumatic events and failing to remove them from immigration detention once it was clear the family was suffering from mental harm caused by the detention.’

The financial cost of the current government’s detention policy, which has been estimated at $3.3 billion per year, has been a significant drain on the economy and has been argued to be more expensive than the cost for an asylum seeker to live in the community. This year, the Government spent $78 million on transporting asylum seekers and last year $97 million was spent. The running costs of Manus Island and Nauru detention centres alone cost an estimated $5 billion between 2012 and 2017. Furthermore, a report by Save the Children and UNICEF stated that offshore immigration enforcement cost up to $9.6 billion between 2013 and 2016.

The Liberal Government’s offshore detention policy has caused multiple deaths and immeasurable trauma to hundreds of asylum seekers and, furthermore, has been excessively costly to the Australian public. The Government’s recent parliamentary loss over this Bill has further eroded public confidence in their ability to govern or make reasonable humane policies.

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