Australia announces reopening of offshore detention centre

Saul Bowman
February 15, 2019

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has suffered a defeat in Parliament after losing the vote on refugee medical transfers in an issue that has sparked debate on border protection.

The prime minister's announcement came after the opposition Labor party and independents voted on Tuesday to amend hardline immigration laws to give doctors the right to transfer some 1,000 men and woman from two Pacific detention centres if they need medical treatment. The Conservative coalition's historic parliamentary defeat will deprive ministers of the power to decide if illegal migrants being held on islands in the Pacific are sick enough to be sent to Australia.

The government has advice from security and intelligence chiefs that the amendments, which it opposed, could send a signal to people smugglers that Australia's border security policies are being relaxed.

"I do not believe that Australians want a government that governs by slogans and fear", Shorten said.

Labor made a strategic move to avoid turning the bill into a test of confidence in the government, withdrawing part of the medical transfer scheme that required funding to pay for medical experts to review transfers.

The Christmas Island immigration detention camp, south of Jakarta, Indonesia, was a favorite target of people smugglers who brought asylum seekers from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East in rickety boats from Indonesian ports before the trade virtually stopped in recent years.

The government had struck a deal in 2016 for the United States to accept up to 1,250 refugees languishing on Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

"Today Labor will fight for more jail time and increased penalties for banks and bankers who do the wrong thing", Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said. The people smugglers know my resolve, they know Peter Dutton's resolve, they know we will do everything in our power to stop them.

Mr Shorten proposed a deadline of three days for each decision to transfer a refugee to Australia for medical treatment, scaling back Labor's initial deadline of one week. Australian media say the local administration office was not informed of the decision to reopen it.

Medical evacuations have become a loophole in Australia's policy of exiling asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

Section 53 is "non-justiciable" and therefore a court will not decide if a law is valid, meaning the government can not challenge the medical transfer bill in the High Court.

Earlier this morning, Mr Morrison called a meeting of the National Security Committee after which he declared the Christmas Island detention facility will be reopened.

"It should come as no surprise to people that people smugglers have heard what is going on", Mr Dutton said.

"They should be ashamed of themselves for luring people to Australia by somehow implying that this government hasn't got strong borders".

Under the previous system, the Minister for Home Affairs, now Peter Dutton, had final say over all proposed medical transfers.

A fishing boat carrying Vietnamese asylum seekers neared the shore of Australia's Christmas Island, taken in 1993.

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