SYDNEY – The Australian House of Representatives approved on Tuesday a landmark bill to facilitate the medical evacuation of asylum seekers held offshore to the country and ensure medical care is accessible to those refugees.
The bill, with an opposition amendment, was passed with the support of the opposition Labor Party, minority groups and independent members. It seeks to provide more power to medical professionals in deciding whether to transfer detained refugees in need of medical attention to Australia.
It also permits the Home Affairs minister to reject transfers on national security grounds or in the case of patients with substantial criminal records deemed to pose a risk to the Australian community.
The minister has up 72 hours to decide whether to agree or reject the transfer after it is approved. If it is refused, the decision would be referred to the eight-member Independent Health Advice Panel.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government had tried to gather last-minute support against the bill by presenting the argument of Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue, who considers it to be unconstitutional.
In a speech, Morrison rejected the bill, saying it would lead to the “total destruction of Australian borders.” He had earlier said that it could help criminals and terrorists enter the country.
The vote is a huge blow for the Australian government, which has 73 of the 150 seats in the Lower House of parliament. According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the government hasn’t lost a key parliamentary vote in its lower house in almost 80 years.
The bill will now be sent to the Senate, where it is expected to be ratified later this week.
In 2012, Australia resumed its policy of detaining undocumented immigrants in third countries. Under the widely criticized government migration policy, asylum seekers trying to enter Australia by sea are blocked from entering the country and sent to offshore processing centers on Manus island in Papua New Guinea and the tiny micronesian island of Nauru.
The conditions under which these migrants are held have been repeatedly denounced by international organizations, including the United Nations.
Many of the immigrants that Australia intercepts have fled conflict-ridden countries or regions such as Afghanistan, Darfur, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria, or have escaped conditions of discrimination or statelessness such as the minority Rohingyas in Myanmar or the Biduns in the Persian Gulf.