Australia’s government stirs up hysteria about illegal immigration

It says giving asylum-seekers medical treatment in Australia is a terrible mistake

The bill proposed to grant a sliver of mercy to the 1,000-odd asylum-seekers in Australia’s offshore detention centres. It amended existing legislation to give doctors precedence over politicians in deciding when sick migrants should be evacuated to Australia. The government opposed it vehemently, but it passed the lower house all the same on February 12th, with the support of Labor, the main opposition party, and several independent mps. That was a “disaster for our country”, shrieked the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton. Mainly, it was an embarrassment for the government, since prohibiting refugees on boats from entering Australia under any circumstances is one of its flagship policies.

When people attempt to enter Australia illegally by sea, the authorities either turn their vessel back to the port from which it sailed, usually in Indonesia, or transport the would-be asylum-seekers to processing centres on Manus island, part of Papua New Guinea, or Nauru, a minuscule country in the Pacific. Even those found to be genuine refugees (most of them) are barred from entering Australia; instead the government tries to settle them elsewhere. The policy has succeeded in reducing the flow of boat people to a trickle, but it has also left many refugees in limbo for years, since the government has struggled to find countries willing to take them in permanently. Physical and psychological illnesses are rife among the detainees, and health services on the two islands are limited.

Both now face a “medical crisis”, says Hugh de Kretser of the Human Rights Law Centre, a charity. So far 12 detainees have died. Several more have attempted suicide, among them children. The bill should “break that circuit”, argues Kerryn Phelps, the independent mp (and practising doctor) who drafted it.

The bill is narrow in scope. Only asylum-seekers who are already in detention (not new arrivals) will be eligible for evacuation, and only if two doctors deem them ill enough and treatment is unavailable on the islands. The home affairs minister can veto transfers which threaten national security. Unconvincing cases will be referred to a panel of medical experts, which includes government doctors. None of that has forestalled a campaign of fear by the ruling Liberal party. All 1,000 detainees will now descend on the country, they speculate. New asylum-seekers will “get on a boat, get to Nauru, get sick and get to Australia”, claims Tony Abbott, the leader of their hard-right faction and a former prime minister. To guard against the impending armada, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, has said he will reopen a detention centre on Christmas Island, an Australian speck in the Indian Ocean from which the government has banned asylum claims.

This sets the tone for the federal election due in May (assuming the government survives that long). The Liberals have won previous ballots with a tough stance on illegal immigration. The polls suggest they are headed for a drubbing, which is presumably why they are trying to stir up hysteria about boat people again. They claim that Labor, which broadly supports offshore detention, is marching down a slippery slope and will end up admitting untold hordes. Mr Dutton frets about an impending tide of paedophiles and murderers. Bill Shorten, Labor’s leader, says, “Australians understand our nation can be strong on borders and still treat people humanely.” The Liberals seem to want to make the election a test of that contention.

Comments are closed.