The Guardian • Issue #1953

Peter Dutton continues to abuse the rights of refugees to healthcare

The Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton has once again shown his utter disregard for the health and wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers. Dutton plans to deport several detainees within a fortnight back to Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG), a move which has earned him the condemnation of High Court judge Geoffrey Flick. The judge described Dutton’s handling of these cases as disturbing and potentially unlawful. Justice Flick stated, “What is disturbing me is a picture seems to be emerging that [the minister] is not taking any steps at all to give effect to a request made by someone in detention for removal until this court intervenes.”

The purpose of the Medevac law was to allow people in detention to be brought to Australia for the purposes of medical or psychiatric assessment or treatment after a medical assessment by two doctors which would then be reviewed by an independent health advice panel. This replaced the old, cumbersome system where Australian courts would have to order the minister to bring detainees onshore. The law, however, was repealed in 2019, after the Coalition government struck a secret deal with Jacqui Lambie, once again leaving it to the discretion of the minister who gets sent where and when.

This has afforded Dutton a lack of effective transparency and accountability as courts must request access to the reasoning of the minister behind each transfer. While the six detainees had requested to be sent back to Nauru or PNG where they’d be able to continue looking for a third-country settlement, it took nine months to process and would have taken longer had they not sought the intervention of the courts. Furthermore, the detainees have said that they had not received the medical treatment they were promised, the reason they were brought to Australia in the first place. This is not the first-time detainees have spoken out about this issue.

In 2019, one detainee stated that his stay in Australia actually worsened his condition. The psychological torture of isolation coupled with the lack of the promised medical treatment is a situation too many refugees and asylum seekers are familiar with. Even once detainees are on Australian soil, they are still held in detention centres or locked away in hotels, as we saw last year in Melbourne with the Mantra Hotel lockdown. Most of the men who were detained at Mantra are currently being held in the Park Hotel in Carlton, within view of the nation’s leading institutes for legal research.

This sets a dangerous standard. Dutton has not made any part of the process transparent and, as is the case for most refugees and asylum seekers, it has been an extremely lengthy process. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has stated that most applications for transfers take between two to five years. Depending on the nature of the illness, this waiting period can be extremely dangerous to the health of detainees.

This is not the first time Dutton has played fast and loose with Medevac laws. He has often used his discretion under the Act to horrendous effect. In 2019, he used it to block the transferral of a refugee on “security grounds.” The man was asking to accompany his daughter who required treatment. This exposed his previous claim – that the law Medevac law would prevent the government from being able to stop people from entering the country – for what it was, a sham designed to make Australia’s abhorrent human rights record palatable.

These same concerns for security don’t seem to extend to transporting people internationally during a global pandemic. The Australian government is currently considering allowing international commercial travel to start up again in the coming months. But the real hypocrisy is the government’s insistence on moving refugees around while the pandemic continues to wreak havoc domestically and internationally.

No minister should possess the power to arbitrarily decide who is and isn’t worthy of medical care. No minister ought to have the power to lock up legal asylum seekers in detention camps. That is the Australia that we are living in. The obvious solution is to bring all refugees here and allow them to live in the community. Until then, the powers of the Minister under the Migration Act must be severely curtailed and the accountability mechanisms vastly increased.

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