After Australia’s conservative government lost a key vote on the treatment of asylum seekers held in offshore camps on Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Wednesday that he would reopen a controversial immigration detention camp on Christmas Island, a part of the country but almost 1,000 miles to the northwest of mainland Australia. The camp was shut last October after years of controversies and riots there.
Lawmakers had voted to ease medical transfers from offshore migrant camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island to Australia on Tuesday, despite governmental warnings that the evacuations may encourage more asylum seekers to risk the perilous boat journey. The Australian Senate approved the bill on Wednesday. Conditions in the Nauru and Manus camps had been called “inhuman” by the UN and physicians had long been clamouring for the authority to bring the asylum seekers to Australia for medical treatment.
As critics of the prime minister’s hard line immigration policies were still celebrating their success, Morrison announced that the Christmas Island camp would have to be reopened instead, “both to deal with the prospect of arrivals as well as dealing with the prospect of transfers.”
Christmas Island is part of Australia, so asylum seekers could be transferred to the facility and still kept far away from the mainland, despite Tuesday’s bill passage.
But human rights groups and the opposition immediately questioned the real intentions behind the reopening. “This is just further grandstanding from the government,” the Australian Human Rights Law Centre said in a statement to The Washington Post. “These people will need medical specialists and facilities that do not exist on Christmas Island, and the government is well aware of that.”
Authorities on Christmas Island appeared to agree on Wednesday that they were not prepared for a sudden reopening of the camp. Calling the decision a “knee-jerk reaction,” council chief executive David Price told ABC Australia: “We’ve got a hospital (but) it doesn’t do operations. People are medevaced out quite regularly here for medical reasons as it’s only a small regional hospital.”
Speaking to The Washington Post, Graham Thom, the Refugee Coordinator at Amnesty International Australia, cautioned that transfers from Nauru and Manus Island to Christmas Island could in fact represent a step backward. “It means putting people back into detention who can currently walk free in daylight hours, which may have a detrimental impact on their mental health.”
The opposition also cast doubts on the governmental claim that migrant numbers would rise as a result of Tuesday’s vote. The bill is limited in scope and only applies to migrants already on Nauru or Manus Island. Morrison’s critics blame him for making up a threat scenario that is not based on facts, to deliberately stir concerns ahead of elections that will take place at some point before the end of May.
After losing a by-election in October, Morrison’s conservative Liberal Party lost its narrow majority in the lower house of Parliament last year, which paved the way for Tuesday’s historic defeat.
The horrible rhetoric we’re hearing does echo Trump’s rhetoric of murderers and pedophiles. It’s playing into people’s fears
Wednesday’s countermove by Morrison bears some of the hallmarks of President Donald Trump’s political maneuvers ahead of the midterm elections last November, when he rallied his supporters behind the idea of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. Days before the polling date, more than 5,000 active U.S. service members were ordered to the border on a mission Democrats described as pointless and political. Spreading unsubstantiated claims that “unknown Middle Easterners” were in a caravan of migrants moving toward the U.S. border and describing the developments as an “invasion,” Trump was widely criticized for exaggerating or even inventing a threat that did not exist.
Both Trump and Morrison, said Amnesty International coordinator Thom, were “creating sense of emergency and political crisis, that in this case really doesn’t exist.”
“The horrible rhetoric we’re hearing does echo Trump’s rhetoric of murderers and pedophiles. It’s playing into people’s fears,” said Thom.
Similar concerns were shared by Australia’s Labor opposition party on Wednesday in regards to the Morrison government’s Christmas Island announcement.
“(This is) a pattern of deceit and desperation from a man who is desperate to cling to office – a man who has nothing left, nothing left but deceit, fear and smear,” said Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong.
Christmas Island authorities are worried about a repeat of the scenes until 2018, when the immigration detention center on the island became a flash point of the country’s hard line immigration policies. Former detainees described extended lockdowns and a lack of medical and mental health care in the facilities prior the closure, even though Australian authorities denied those allegations.
In November 2015, the death of an Iranian Kurdish asylum seeker who attempted to escape the island but fell off a cliff sparked riots in the center, following years of protests there over conditions at the center and Australia’s immigration policies.
Despite criticism from international rights groups and the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, the government has stood by its hard-line policy of directing asylum seekers who arrive by sea to the offshore camps. Thousands have been held on Manus Island and Nauru since the policy took effect in 2013, and about 1,000 remain on both islands, according to government estimates.
More recently, the Liberal Party has made some concessions to critics, by striking resettlement deals and evacuating children who may be at risk of committing suicide or have suffered mental distress.
But the Australian opposition maintained that the concessions are a facade: Morrison and his supporters have gone to great lengths to uphold the image of Australia’s hard line immigration policies. Adult asylum seekers – believed to be in need of urgent treatment by medical organizations – were repeatedly refused transfers, which prompted Tuesday’s bill that will ease such evacuations.
Whereas decisions on medical transfers had been made by civil servants, doctors can now themselves initiate the process. The Home Affairs Minister can still stop evacuations on the grounds of national security.
But for some of the asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island who will be able to leave, the journey from one island detention camp may now end in just another island detention center. Ironically, the best bet for them may at this stage is to hope to be resettled to the United States before that happens – under a deal struck by former president Barack Obama and so far upheld by Trump.