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Protesters holding banners march in Sydney to urge the Australian government to end the refugee crisis on Manus Island on November 4, 2017. © 2017 PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

Australian members of parliament (MPs) have the chance before year’s end to address one of most egregious impacts of Australia’s harsh border policies by backing a bill to give refugees emergency medical care.

On December 3, several crossbench MPs will introduce the Migration Amendment (Urgent Medical Treatment) Bill. The proposed law would make it easier to transfer refugees and asylum seekers from Papua New Guinea and Nauru for medical treatment. It will require the immediate evacuation of critically ill asylum seekers unable to be treated offshore, together with their families, on the recommendation of two or more doctors.

Since 2013, the Australian government has been sending men, women, and children who claim asylum and arrive in Australian waters by boat to the island nation of Nauru, and men to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. The five years offshore has taken a devastating toll on their physical and mental health. Yet medical facilities are woefully inadequate and have proven unable to cope with their complex medical needs, especially their mental health needs.

Nonetheless, the Australian government has delayed or denied medical transfers of refugees and asylum seekers, sometimes for months or years, ignoring the recommendations of Australian doctors. Many were only transferred following the commencement of legal proceedings.

In recent months, the government has relented to political pressure brought by a successful “Kids off Nauru” campaign. Since August, the number of child refugees on Nauru has dropped from 119 to 12.

But it’s not just children who are sick. Twelve refugees and asylum seekers have died on Manus and Nauru since 2013, six of them suicides. The 2018 coroner’s report into the death of Iranian Hamid Khazaei found his death was “preventable” and resulted from “a series of clinical errors, compounded by failures in communication that led to poor handovers and significant delays in his retrieval from Manus Island.” The coroner recommended that doctors working offshore, not bureaucrats in Australia, should approve medical transfers to Australia. 

Importantly, this bill acts on the coroner’s recommendation. There are still more than 1,100 refugees and asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru for whom Australia is responsible. The Australian government has failed them these last five years. Australian MPs should step up and vote in favor of this bill to ensure those with emergency medical conditions get the help they are entitled.

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