Australia to reopen detention centre after Senate passes medical evacuation bill

Scott Morrison remains defiant after the medical refugee transfers bill was passed today, warning the new laws will weaken Australia's borders.

Opposition Immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann said the PM has become a "walking, talking billboard" for the boat trade.

Earlier on Tuesday, the ALP made some compromises on the bill, introducing amendments to give the Home Affairs Minister the power to overrule a medical transfer on specific security concerns and making changes to avoid a possible breach of the Australian Constitution.

The government has not said how many medical transferees will likely live in the community and how many will need to be held in detention centres.

"This legislation is confined to the current cohort of people on Manus Island and Nauru", said Kerryn Phelps, an independent lawmaker who championed the bill back in December 2018.

The amendments were agreed to by the Senate late a year ago, after Labor and the crossbench forced a series of measures into a government migration bill.

News of the reopening came after the government suffered a historic defeat in parliament that appears to undermine the ruling party's strict border policies. Refugee advocates applaud the law that they regard as a more humanitarian approach toward asylum seekers.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten chose not to turn the government's defeat into a call for an early election, arguing the new law was a humanitarian change that made no significant adjustment to offshore processing of boat arrivals.

Labor is accusing the government of a hysterical response.

The people smuggling boat traffic has all but stopped in the past five years with the government promising that any refugees who arrive on Australian shores by boat will never be allowed to settle there.

"I totally repudiate the attacks of the government, seeking to whip up fear and hysteria, seeking to lure people smugglers to entice people onto boats to come to Australia", he told reporters.

He said he was confident anyone who was transferred to Australia would remain in detention while receiving treatment.

His decision comes as both parties gear up for a bitter campaign ahead of a general election due in May and amid fierce debate over the conservative government's harsh immigration policies. A wooden boat carrying 90 asylum seekers from Iran and Iraq ran onto rocks on Christmas Island in 2010, killing 48.

Under the bill, detainees on Nauru and Manus Island will be able to seek "medical or psychiatric assessment or treatment" in Australia.

The Home Affairs minister would have 72 hours to make a decision on the transfer.

He pointed out the medivac bill only applied to asylum seekers and refugees now stranded on Manus Island and Nauru.

"So if you think that by buying a ticket on an unsafe boat, paying a people smuggler, a criminal syndicate, you'll get a better deal to come to Australia, you're wrong".

He said the new laws only allowed the minister to refuse entry to Australia if someone had been sentenced, not if they were only facing charges.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

  • Rogelio Becker