Australia Revokes Medical Evacuations for Offshore Detainees

SYDNEY, Australia — The Australian Parliament on Wednesday repealed a law that had allowed refugees and asylum seekers being held offsho...

SYDNEY, Australia — The Australian Parliament on Wednesday repealed a law that had allowed refugees and asylum seekers being held offshore to seek emergency medical care in Australia, a reversal that human rights advocates denounced as cruel and shameful.

The vote, which came 10 months after the law was enacted, was the latest example of the Australian government’s hard-line stance on border protection, a policy it has maintained even as the United Nations has condemned it for detaining asylum seekers who were intercepted at sea indefinitely, on islands in the Pacific.

“This was always a law that was about getting people here through the back door, and today we’ve closed that back door,” Peter Dutton, the minister for home affairs, told reporters in Canberra, the capital. He added that it had undermined efforts to resettle refugees in the United States under a deal struck in 2016.

The independent senator who cast the decisive vote to repeal the measure, Jacqui Lambie, said it would return decision-making power to lawmakers from doctors, whose approval was required for a medical transfer.

“You can take advice from doctors, but doctors aren’t elected. They aren’t accountable to the public,” Ms. Lambie told the Senate as the repeal passed, 37 to 35.

Physicians’ groups had strongly supported the medical evacuation law, saying it upheld fundamental rights to health care.

The law, which was narrowly approved in February after a campaign by doctors, lawyers and rights advocates, allowed detainees on the islands to come to Australia for medical treatment or assessment if the transfers were approved by two doctors and the home affairs minister.

About 170 people have filed applications to be transferred under the law, and more than 130 have been evacuated. About 500 are still being held in the Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Since the Australian government enacted a policy in 2013 barring anyone intercepted at sea from setting foot in Australia, more than 3,000 people have been held on the islands, where their living conditions have been described as dire.

Twelve detainees have died since 2014. A coroner said in 2018 that a faster medical transfer could have prevented the death of Hamid Khazaei, an Iranian asylum seeker who suffered from a leg infection. There have been no deaths since the medical evacuation law was enacted.

Dissenting lawmakers said the law’s repeal would compound the detainees’ despair. “The last shred of hope for people we know were suffering in those offshore hellholes was knowing they were getting medical care — and now that’s gone,” said Richard Di Natale, the leader of the Greens party.

Detainees called the move a devastating blow. Shamindan Kanapathi, a Sri Lankan detainee in Papua New Guinea, said on Twitter that refugees’ lives would “again be in the hands of politicians who have shown they will deliberately withhold medical treatment from people who desperately need it.”

Jana Favero, a director at the Asylum Seeker Resource Center, said that many of the people who had been evacuated suffered from multiple medical conditions, and that many more sick detainees remained. “This is not about left and right, it’s about right and wrong,” she said. “Yet again, the government is playing politics with people’s lives.”

Ms. Lambie, the senator who cast the deciding vote, had initially expressed sympathy for the refugees’ plight but ultimately voted for the repeal, saying she had negotiated a secret agreement with the conservative government on the issue. The government denied any such deal.

New Zealand has offered to help resolve the crisis by accepting 150 refugees a year, though the Australian government has so far refused the proposal.

On Wednesday, the Kurdish-Iranian writer Behrooz Boochani, a prominent former detainee, applied for asylum in New Zealand, Australian news media reported. Mr. Boochani was allowed to leave Papua New Guinea last month for a literary festival in New Zealand.

Under a deal reached with President Barack Obama late in his second term, 654 refugees have been resettled in the United States, with 251 in the provisional approval stage, Mr. Dutton said.

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Newsrust: Australia Revokes Medical Evacuations for Offshore Detainees
Australia Revokes Medical Evacuations for Offshore Detainees
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