The Australian government will be reopening the Christmas Island detention center, likened to a maximum security prison, after the opposition streamlined a bill to allow migrant detainees to seek medical help on the mainland.
Australia’s conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Tuesday that the detention facility in the Australian external territory in the Indian Ocean his government worked hard to shut down would be reopened to accommodate potential new arrivals and detainees, who might be transferred from the Nauru and Manus Island offshore migrant detention camps.
The setback in the conservative government’s effort to scale down the controversial migrant detention program is a response to a new amendment to a medical evacuations bill, championed by the Labor party, which enlisted the support of the Greens and crossbench MPs.
It is the first time in over seven decades that the incumbent government lost the vote on its own legislation. The amendment facilitating medical evacuations of sick refugees stranded in Nauru and Manus camp was narrowly passed on Tuesday with 75 votes in favor, to 74 against.
The measure has already been dubbed a “disaster” for Australia by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who accused Labor of “unraveling a successful border protection policy” and promised to enforce “contingency plans” to mitigate its adverse effect.
The reopening of the infamous Christmas Island detention center is part of that plan to stop unwanted arrivals and detainees who might take advantage of the newly-emerged loophole to come to Australia.
“We have approved putting in place the reopening of the Christmas Island detention facilities, both to deal with the prospect of arrivals as well as dealing with the prospect of transfers,” Morrison said in a press conference following his government’s defeat in the parliament.
Speaking before the vote, Morrison said that the changes would encourage people-smugglers and provoke a new flow of arrivals. “Every arrival is on Bill Shorten [Leader of the Labor Party] and Labor’s head. Every arrival,” he said.
The amendments to the bill were introduced in Parliament back in December. However, Labor sat on the legislation almost until it was up for vote on Tuesday before proposing an amendment of their own on Monday night. The Labor proposal made it easier for refugees to get approved for medical transfer by making it more challenging for the Home Affairs Minister to reject their applications.
Migrants had to jump through numerous legal hoops, many of which are still in place, before they could be greenlighted for transfer. Before being sent to the mainland, a migrant detainee must be assessed by two doctors. Then, the Home Affairs Minister, who used to have the final say on the matter, will have 72 hours to deliver his verdict. He can block the transfer if a detainee poses a national security risk or has a vast criminal record. However, if the minister refuses transfer on other grounds, his decision could be overruled by an eight-member independent health panel.
Morrison refused to disclose the cost of reopening the center, which closed in October last year after running for 10 years. At its peak in 2010, the Christmas Island facility was home to around 2,400 people. The number of detainees plummeted to around 30 before it was shut down, as it turns out now, for only 3 months.
It was estimated that reopening the center would cost taxpayers AU$1.2 billion (US$855,000) which would be needed to house 1,000 detainees.
The Christmas Island center, on par with detention facilities on Nauru and Manus Island, has become a symbol of Australia’s controversial migration policy, associated with torture, mistreatment, and abuse. The Christmas Island center has been described as a high-security prison where the unlucky “boaters” are forced to cohabitate with hardened criminals, including rapists. A resident of the center, Leo Jai, described it as a “concentration camp” in a VICE column last year, writing that the detainees were “locked down in cramped compounds of 50 people” and were allowed only two hours out of their cells a day.