Australia repeals medical transfer law for asylum seekers

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Australia has controversially repealed a law which allowed sick refugees held offshore to be treated in the country.

The government’s push to scrap the “medevac” law – passed by opposition MPs in February – has drawn criticism as cruel and inhumane.

But Prime Minister Scott Morrison argued the law had presented a “national security” risk.

Since 2013, Australia has sent asylum seekers arriving by boat to detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Canberra has defended the controversial policy by arguing that it stops deaths at sea and disrupts human trafficking.

The passage of the medevac bill had marked the first time in decades that a government had lost a vote on its own legislation in the lower house.

What was ‘medevac’ about?

It followed public outrage about the health crisis of detainees – including children – on the islands of Nauru and Manus Island (Papua New Guinea). There were reports that children as young as 11 were attempting suicide.

Map shows Australian detentions centres on Manus Island and Nauru-nc

Doctors have long warned of inadequate medical facilities on the islands, while the UN has previously described the camp conditions as “inhumane”.

Under the legislation, doctors had the power to recommend transfers for refugees on Nauru and Manus to Australia for treatment.

The government said as a result of the law, 135 refugees were brought to the mainland for treatment this year.

It argued the law had been a “border protection” risk and was a “loophole” for refugee advocates to bring asylum seekers into Australia.

“[The] weak and bad medevac laws must be repealed in order to strengthen our national security again,” said the government’s Senate leader, Mathias Cormann.

How did the government succeed this time?

It secured the support of a key independent lawmaker, Jacqui Lambie, to get the numbers in the Senate on Wednesday.

Opposition senators accused the government of “secrecy” in striking a deal with Ms Lambie to secure her support.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton
Image captionAustralia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) said the law posed a risk to national security

“Members of the cabinet of Australia are coming in to vote on a deal they haven’t even seen,” said Penny Wong, the Labor opposition’s Senate leader.

A Greens senator, Nick McKim, said the vote was “a dark day for the majority of Australians who support the ‘medevac’ legislation”.

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