Opinion

Kon Karapanagiotidis
Saving asylum seekers’ lives

As the doors of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) opened on the Monday after the election, it was clear the lives of refugees and people seeking asylum had been profoundly altered.

Once again, their fate had been determined by other people, those in positions of privilege and safety.

The feeling of loss was heavy, almost suffocating.

I spent the week after the election holding weeping mothers who knew their dream of seeing their children again had just been shattered. “It’s all finished now,” one told me, over and over.

Other refugees, still waiting for an initial decision on their refugee claims eight years after arriving in Australia, asked me when they would have an answer. All I could say was “I don’t know”.

What left me in awe, though, was the continued resilience. The bravery and the will to keep fighting for their freedom.

I would have broken years ago.

Staff and volunteers at the centre were hurting too, contemplating the ongoing pain and injustice for the 5000-plus people we care for, from Melbourne to Manus.

Sister Rita, a nun who has been volunteering at the ASRC for 15 years, best captured the mood. “I didn’t want to come to the ASRC after the election,” she told me, “but I am here and that’s what matters.”

The work is vital – it always has been – but as 8000 people are cut off all income support by the government, we face the prospect this winter of children as young as six being forced into homelessness. The ASRC has had to stockpile more sleeping bags than ever before.

 

While we grapple with the on-ground reality of the election result, nothing is weighing more heavily than what this means for the men and women stranded on Manus and Nauru.

Policy change after nearly six years of being imprisoned, being denied freedom and justice, was the last hope many held out for. That hope has now vanished.

I visited Manus Island 18 months ago and described what I saw as a living graveyard. Today, hundreds of people are still suffering and languishing in conditions that have further deteriorated, and their fate for another three years is even more uncertain.

One of the final acts of parliament before the election was the passing of the Home Affairs Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2018, better known as the medivac bill.

It provides for the urgent transfer of refugees and people seeking asylum from Papua New Guinea and Nauru to Australia for medical treatment. And its passing was momentous for a number of reasons – the cross-party support the bill received, the huge shift in public attitude it signalled, the fact it marked the first defeat by a government on the floor of the house in 70 years.

But at the end of the day, what was most significant was finally providing a lifeline for sick refugees.

In the weeks and months after the bill passed, including after the election was called, there has been much speculation as to whether the medivac bill was worth it.

The government warned everyone of the dangers of the bill. Scott Morrison announced the country would be flooded with hundreds of refugees. Peter Dutton said Australians would have to wait longer for hospital beds. Others engaged in the usual fearmongering.

It was clear any movement of people would be too many and would simply be used as political fodder during an election.

At the same time, though, individuals and organisations working with people on Manus and Nauru have long been terrified of imminent deaths unless we begin evacuations. These are the psychologists, counsellors and front-line caseworkers who have been on the phones for years, desperately trying to support those held in offshore detention.

Amid all of this chaos, a group of refugee organisations around Australia came together to try to facilitate an orderly process of transfer for critically sick people. It was this Medical Evacuation Response Group (MERG) – of which the ASRC is proud to be a part – that established a transfer referral system.

The challenge was how to manage the volume of requests and what might have unfolded as a toxic political issue during an election. Any public announcement of applications or transfers could be seized by politicians and by journalists. If this happened, it would be refugees who would suffer and, for political mileage, be sent to Christmas Island instead of Australia.

For weeks, the only information made public was that one person had been transferred. Even supporters of the bill began to question its worth.

To assess the real impact of the medivac bill though, it’s worth casting our mind back to August 2018, when there were 119 children in detention on Nauru. There was no desire from the government then to move sick refugees, despite mounting evidence from specialist doctors that these people were facing a medical emergency. The fear a child would die was real. And the only way people were being brought to Australia from Nauru – and even less so from Manus – was because of pro bono legal action against the government on a case-by-case basis.

Then came Kids Off Nauru and Back the Bill. Being involved in these campaigns from the beginning has helped me understand the importance of the medivac bill passing. Both were originally intended to galvanise public support, which would then lead to pressure on the government to act humanely. But it quickly became obvious that the increasing volume of public pressure wouldn’t be enough. Despite court orders and mounting medical evidence, the government wouldn’t budge from its hardline stance.

We had to stop relying on lengthy court action when timely medical care was needed. Legislation was the only way to force government action. Lobbying and public pressure couldn’t make politicians act humanely but a law could.

The leadership and compassion shown across the parliament was extraordinary. Individuals and parties came together with a common goal – to provide a humane solution for sick refugees on Manus and Nauru.

No, the medivac bill wasn’t all the ASRC dreamt of, and it wasn’t a permanent solution, but it could avoid further unnecessary deaths. So, we threw all our support behind it and were proud to do so. We stand by that decision.

The medivac legislation was passed just over three months ago. It has been life-changing. More than 40 critically ill refugees have been brought to Australia from Nauru and Manus for medical care. MERG receives 11 to 12 applications for medical transfers every day. We are completing an average of 8.2 medical triages each day, which shows the scale of medical need.

There is an army of hundreds of caseworkers, lawyers and doctors working around the clock – many of them volunteers. Ninety per cent of the work is unfunded. Lives have been saved, people at risk of loss of organ or limb have been saved, families have been reunited.

There have been no new people seeking asylum by sea as a result of the bill’s passing, so why would the government seek its repeal?

These numbers are evidence of the effectiveness of the legislation and the success of the medivac law. Can we and should we do more? Absolutely. But faced with the reality of the current political climate, the medivac law is more important than ever. It provides the only hope, the only solution, for sick refugees.

The announcement by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg that repealing the medivac legislation would be one of the first priorities of the government has shocked the refugee sector. The spikes in suicide attempts on Manus and Nauru in the aftermath of the election should have been a wake-up call to all of us – those in detention knew the re-election of the Morrison government would spell dark changes for refugee policy.

Yet it still came as a shock that the government would – as a priority – use its power to deny sick refugees medical care. Let that sink in. Denying people medical care is a priority for our government.

We all know that the men and women on Manus and Nauru need a solution, not a medical Band-Aid. That is, to be resettled safely now. A great place to start would be for the Coalition government to finally accept New Zealand’s offer.

This is the only thing that will restore hope, safety and dignity, and put a stop to the medical and humanitarian catastrophe that has been “offshore processing”. It’s time to end this shameful chapter in our nation’s history, before more refugees die.

In the face of adversity, it is easy to become complacent. To focus on how this happened, why it happened, who we can blame. To turn on each other, highlight failures and seek somewhere to channel the rage and disbelief.

Instead, we need to draw on our collective strength. To use the tools that we have available to us – the law, goodwill, humanity – to persevere, until people seeking asylum are treated fairly. Until they are no longer political pawns.

Passing the medivac bill took Australia one step closer to achieving this. It should be recognised and celebrated as the most significant piece of positive legislative change for refugees and people seeking asylum in decades. We have a long way to go, but let’s not forget the small successes along the way. They will sustain us, until our vision becomes reality.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 1, 2019 as "Saving lives". Subscribe here.

Kon Karapanagiotidis
is the CEO and founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.


Jana Favero

is the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s director of advocacy and campaigns.