The Two Tragedies Behind The Historic Asylum Seeker Vote

Two tragedies four years apart form the background to today’s historic Parliamentary vote making it easier to medically evacuate refugees from Nauru and Manus Island.

The first, in December 2010 saw 48 asylum seekers drown within sight of Christmas Island.

That disaster shifted the ground under the humanitarian argument that we owe it to people fleeing persecution to allow them to come by sea. From that day, at least part of the humanitarian impulse became to stop a policy that left people to drown.

Within months, the Gillard government cooked up a plan to fly new asylum seekers arriving by boat back to Malaysia.

It was opposed by the Abbott opposition, with then Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey tearfully declaring it would happen “over my dead body."

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In fact, the High Court scuttled the policy when it ruled it unlawful.

With more boats arriving and more drownings, in November 2012 the Gillard Government swallowed its pride and re-opened the Howard-era processing centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

By the following year, re-installed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pledged Australia would never again accept asylum seekers arriving by boat. The Abbott government came to office weeks later.

New Immigration Minister Scott Morrison took up the Rudd pledge and enforced it with tow-backs under Operation Sovereign Borders.

It stopped the boats.

Iranian asylum seeker Hamid Kehazaei died at Brisbane's Mater Hospital in September 2014 after developing an infected ulcer on his left leg on the Australian-run Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea. (AAP Image/Refugee Action Coalition)

But another tragedy would start the pendulum swinging back.

A year into Operation Sovereign Borders, a young Iranian refugee died in a Brisbane Hospital. Hamid Kehazaei was one of many asylum seekers to die while under Australia’s legal protection but his case gave human context to the cruel, bureaucratic indifference of the policy.

The 24-year-old cut his foot on Manus Island. The injury was minor but under the available care, it became infected.

Septicaemia set in and Kehazaei’s condition worsened. Requests for him to be medically evacuated were ignored and delayed. By the time he was put on a plane to Brisbane, he was beyond help. He arrived brain dead.

Queensland Coroner Terry Ryan declared the death Australia’s responsibility and preventable. He also took aim at the secrecy and repressive nature of the offshore solution, recommending new levels of independent scrutiny into the medical management of asylum seekers.

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Many factors, including the dire mental health of children on Nauru, led to a changed mood in Parliament. But the needless death of an otherwise healthy man undermined the government’s argument that medical care for the refugees surpasses that in Australian regional centres.

Asylum seekers staring at media from behind a fence at the Oscar compound in the Manus Island detention centre, Papua New Guinea. (Image: AAP/Eoin Blackwell)

Once today’s new law gets formal assent, those 1000-odd remaining asylum seekers will have better access to medical evacuation. The Minister will still hold the power to block criminals and those who pose a security threat.

Even before the final vote was cast, the Prime Minister announced he is re-opening the Christmas Island detention facility “to deal with the prospect of (new) arrivals” he says will flow from that change in the law.

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“Our border protection laws are weaker now than they were two days ago,” says Scott Morrison. “That’s a fact.”

Had the government cared more for a man with a cut foot, those risks today might be lower.