Medevac law repeal a priority, Coalition says, as self-harm rises among refugees

Helen Davidson


The re-elected Coalition government is pushing forward with plans to repeal the medical evacuation laws amid a spike in suicide attempts and self-harm among offshore refugees and asylum seekers.

After the federal election on Saturday, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, has identified repealing the legislation as a priority. The medevac bill sets out conditions by which sick refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island can be transferred to Australia for medical treatment. In the event of medical advice from two or more treating doctors that a person needs to be evacuated, the home affairs minister has grounds for refusal.

In April it was revealed the Coalition had spent $185m to reopen the Christmas Island detention centre, based on claims it was needed to manage transfers as a result of the bill. But no one was transferred, and the government revealed in its pre-election budget that it intended to close the centre as part of plans to repeal the law, if it won government.

Related: Australia resettled two Rwandans accused of murder in deal with US

On Tuesday the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, said that remained a priority, but insisted there was also money in the federal budget to keep the centre open if the Senate blocked the repeal bill.

The budget included just $23.7m for the Christmas Island centre after July, with no funding earmarked from 2020-21.

The Centre Alliance senators, Stirling Griff and Rex Patrick, who look likely to hold the balance of power in the new Senate, have indicated they would not support repealing the medevac laws. The Greens have said they will not support repealing the law either, leaving the government probably short of the numbers to pass it.

Hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers remain on Manus Island and Nauru. The US continues to assess refugees for potential resettlement but it is moving slowly, and there have been numerous rejections, particularly of the Iranian cohort.

Manus-based refugees and advocates have reported a consistently worsening mental health situation on the island but, since Saturday, multiple sources have reported a spike in apparent suicide attempts and self-harm on both islands.

Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish Iranian refugee and journalist on Manus Island, said there had been at least nine in the past four days, and Guardian Australia understands there have been cases on Nauru also.

Boochani said four people had been taken to hospital.

Guardian Australia has chosen not to publish photographs and purported suicide notes that have been circulated.

A coalition of organisations, the Medical Evacuation Response Group, formed in March to triage transfer requests and streamline applications under the new law. Any transfer request refused by the minister is required by the law to go to the independent medical review panel established earlier this year. Dr Tony Bartone, the head of the Australian Medical Association, told ABC radio on Wednesday that no case had required their review yet.

Related: Nauru contract standoff causes chaos and confusion as refugee services left in limbo

It’s not publicly known how many people have been transferred to Australia under the medevac laws but, as of April, there had been just one, while about 25 had been brought to Australia under the already established medical evacuation procedures, avoiding the use of Christmas Island as an interim point of detention.

The government had faced repeated accusations it was ignoring those established processes, for up to five years in some cases, and Nauru’s government is known to have blocked a number of transfers even when the Australian government had agreed or was ordered to by a court.

The Nauruan government has since passed a number of laws which in effect stopped the medevac laws before they began by banning unapproved telehealth and requiring all overseas medical referrals to be conducted by doctors on the island.

In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org