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Australian asylum seeker law change throws ruling party into turmoil

A 12 year-old Iranian girl on Nauru who tried to set fire to herself, September 2018
A 12 year-old Iranian girl on Nauru who tried to set fire to herself, September 2018 Mike LEYRAL/AFP

In Australia, the federal government has announced that a controversial offshore detention centre on Christmas Island is to be reopened. This after the conservative minority government suffered a damaging political defeat in the parliament over asylum-seeker legislation.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison's decision to reopen the detention centre comes as the main parties gear up for a bitter campaign ahead of a general election due in May. There has been fierce debate over the conservative government's harsh immigration policies.

Last Wednesday’s vote, on the first sitting day of parliament this year, is a blow to the already embattled Morrison who lost his parliamentary majority last year and has been relying on crossbenchers to keep control of the lower House of Representatives.

Historical defeat for government

It was the first time in decades that an Australian government lost a vote on its own legislation in the House of Representatives.

MPs voted 75-74 in favour of a law allowing doctors to make the decision to transfer people from the two detention centres on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island and the island state of Nauru, to Australia for medical treatment, a measure which could concern some 1,000 refugees.

But Morrison’s government says the bill will reopen the floodgates for people-smugglers sending asylum-seekers to Australia by boat, a flow which reached a peak during 2012 and 2013.

For years Canberra has sent asylum-seekers who try to enter the country by boat to these islands for processing, with those found to be refugees barred from settling in Australia.

The harsh policy is meant to deter people embarking on treacherous sea journeys, but the United Nations and rights groups have harshly criticised the conditions in the camps and the long detention periods.

Watershed moment in refugee politics

The vote in favour of the bill came amid growing concern about the wellbeing of asylum-seekers who have been stranded in the camps, some for more than five years.

At least twelve people have died so far, including one man who was beaten to death, several suicides and people who died due to lack of medical treatment.

Rights groups praised the vote, with the Human Rights Law Centre calling it a "watershed moment in refugee politics and Australian history".

"Ensuring access to adequate medical care for refugees and asylum-seekers is a life-saving, humanitarian act," said Louise Aubin, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Canberra.

The opposition Labor party responded furiously to what it called Morrison's "scare tactics" and said he was manufacturing a fear of migrants to win votes.

Morrison refused calls to step down or order an early election in the wake of the parliamentary setback, insisting that Australians would have time to make their choice in May.

Listen to our Sydney correspondent explain the situation:

Australia's home affairs secretary, Michael Pezzullo, told the Senate late on Monday night it was “the policy of the government” that under the new legislation refugees and asylum-seekers who are found to need a medical transfer will not be sent to mainland Australia, but will first go to Christmas Island.

The remote facility of Christmas Island was closed just months ago. It is located some 2,300 kilometres (1,400 miles) northwest of the western city of Perth. It once held thousands of people and was the scene of violent protests by detainees complaining of harsh conditions.

Authorities on Christmas Island questioned the move to reopen the detention centre, saying their health facilities are limited and they "quite regularly" medically evacuate people because their small hospital cannot handle complex treatment.

(With AFP)

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