Australia’s center-right government says it will re-open a controversial detention center on Christmas Island, after parliament voted to allow asylum-seekers on Nauru and Manus to come to Australia for medical treatment.
The passage of the bill was an embarrassing defeat for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who says making it easier for sick migrants held offshore to be treated in Australia would encourage more asylum-seekers to come by sea.
“To anyone who thinks they should get on a boat, I’m here and I will stop you,” he said. “My job now is to do everything within my power and in the power of the government to ensure that what the parliament has done to weaken our borders does not result in boats coming to Australia.”
Critics see scare tactics
The detention center on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, is to be reopened. It had been in operation since 2003, but was closed last year.
Critics say the prime minister’s decision to reopen the facility 300 kilometers south of Indonesia is an attempt to scare voters about border security ahead of an election expected in May. Opponents point out that the medical evacuation law passed this week covers only people already detained offshore, and will not apply to new arrivals.
Professor Alex Riley from the University of Adelaide says many migrants will know the restrictions that Australia will impose.
“Refugees are much better at sourcing information. The availability of smartphones and the growing information on the internet means that people soon work out what the opportunities really are,” Riley said. “People absolutely will be looking at the details. Before you jump on a boat and risk your life going to another country with the prospect of spending years and years in detention on an island, you are going to look at the details of what the law really says.”
Since 2013, the Australian navy has been turning or towing back asylum-seeker boats.
There has been unrest at detention camps in the South Pacific, where other migrants intercepted at sea have been held. They have been told they will never be allowed to settle in Australia.
News is welcome, if temporary
On Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, refugees have welcomed news that they can go to Australia for medical treatment.
But Khalid Hamad who fled Sudan says his long-term future remains uncertain.
“It is not (a) permanent solution to us,” he said. “To go to Australia, yes, to get the treatment, that is it. What after that? It is not (a) permanent solution, just temporary solution.”
While the impassioned political debate has focused on migrants arriving by boat, whose numbers have dwindled in recent years, little attention is given to a record number of people, mostly from China and Malaysia, who arrive by plane seeking asylum in Australia.