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Issue #1898      December 11, 2019


Australia has failed refugees

Last Wednesday in the Senate the Coalition managed to repeal the “Medevac” law 37-35. Earlier this year, the medical evacuation (Medevac) law – or “the Medevac Bill” – manage to pass both houses delivering the Morrison government one of its first substantial defeats. The Medevac Bill was a set of amendments to the Home Affairs Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2018. These amendments imbued greater authority to medical opinions of doctors in granting asylum seekers medical evacuation to Australia. The bill was a step forward for Australia’s draconian immigration laws.

Senator Jacquiline Lambie, leader and founder of the Jacqui Lambie Network and Senator Pauline Hanson of the One Nation Party.

However, now that progress has been demolished. While Labor, the Greens, and Centre Alliance opposed the repeal, the Coalition, One Nation, and independent senator Cory Bernardi supported it. Jacqui Lambie held the tipping vote. She voted in support of the repeal.

Last month, many lauded Senator Lambie for voting against the Ensuring Integrity Bill, despite her failed, last-minute attempts to negotiate amendments. Now, Lambie finds herself at the centre of the nationwide scorn. And rightfully so. The Guardian (UK) found that 42 percent of Australians thought that “the medevac procedures strike a balance between strong borders and humane treatment for people in offshore detention.” A further 23 percent believed the measures didn’t “go far enough to provide humane treatment for people in offshore detention.”

Why did Senator Lambie vote to repeal the bill? National security. Lambie held “that the conditions that led to medevac being passed aren’t the same as the conditions today” and that “the world in which this vote takes place is different.” This excuse didn’t fly with Labor and the Greens, as news broke out of a “secret deal” between Lambie and Coalition. Labor Senator Penny Wong, worried that cabinet ministers were voting expressed concerns “for a bill on a deal you haven’t seen.” Despite the opaqueness, an emotional Lambie defended the sincerity of her vote; “I know that’s frustrating to people and I get that. I don’t like holding things back like this. But when I say I can’t discuss it publicly due to national security concerns, I am being 100 percent honest to you. [...] I put up to the government a proposal to work with me on, to secure my support for the passage of the repeal of medevac.”

However, this account was at odds with the Coalition’s version of events. The Coalition denied the existence of any deal with Senator Mathias Cormann stating, “Let me just make the most important point right up front – there is no secret deal. [...] Let me repeat that again. There is no secret deal.” The two different accounts prompted Greens Senator Richard Di Natale to ask, “Who’s lying? Who’s lying? Minister Cormann, are you lying? Or is Senator Lambie lying?”

Several media outlets have speculated that the “secret deal” in question was the government accepting the resettlement offer from New Zealand. However, Senator Lambie refused to comment when asked and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, like his colleague in the Senate, also denied a “secret deal.” One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson was unmoved by Labor’s arguments regarding the lack of transparency stating, “I will not sit here and listen to the Labor Party, greater than all thou, as if they’ve never done their deals.”

Senator Hanson, in her support of the repeal, repeated the same xenophobic reasons she usually shares on policies concerning immigration. Hanson stated that those in detention did not have “good character,” that “they’re rapists” and “thugs,” and that ultimately “they don’t belong here in Australia.” Hanson also said that refugees were “swallowing stones” in an attempt to get permanent residency in Australia.

Hanson’s conclusion glosses over and ignores that self-harm, which is a result of the inhuman conditions, has risen. The ABC reported that, according to data by the Australian government, “the highest rates of self-harm occurred in offshore detention, at 260 incidents per 1,000 people on Nauru and 54 incidents per 1,000 people on Manus Island.”

So what happens to those in detention that need medical assistance now? Back in October, when a medevac repeal was being discussed an alliance of 11 groups went to Canberra to discuss the potential devastating effects the repeal would have. Simon Judkins, president of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, stated that he believed it was“a robust process” and that “people [were] getting the care they need.” John Allan, The president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, stated that “the [medevac system] is a valuable safeguard for the government, the people in offshore detention and the medical practitioners that provide their care.” Allan also stressed the concerns about the “very detrimental effects” the medevac repeal could have on vulnerable persons, that their health be made a “priority.”

In a joint statement, these 11 groups stated that “previous delays and failures to transfer ill asylum seekers resulted in preventable suffering.” Therefore, as a result of this policy reversal, the devastating effects on the psychology and physical health of refugees in detention knows no bounds. On top of the potential magnitude of the negative effects on the health of refugees, their basic rights are also being violated.

On this point, after the repeal, Senator Di Natale stated, “Medical care is a fundamental human right, and today the government, along with Senator Jacqui Lambie, voted to remove that fundamental human right to people who are suffering.”

Next article – Editorial – What a year!

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