Prime Minister Scott Morrison flew to tiny Christmas Island on an overnight flight to announce his government's strategy aimed at preventing asylum seekers from reaching the Australian mainland. The island is 5,170 kilometers (3,210 miles) northwest of the Australian capital, Canberra, and is closer to Indonesia's capital, Jakarta.
Australia pays Nauru and Papua New Guinea to accommodate almost 1,000 asylum seekers who have attempted to reach the Australian coastline by boat since 2013. Boats carrying asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East and Asia had been arriving daily from Indonesian ports, but the smuggling attempts have all but stopped since the government announced that no refugees who arrive by boat will ever be allowed to settle in Australia.
Medical evacuations have proven to be a crack in the policy. Sick asylum seekers often have to fight the government in court for permission to be transferred to an Australian hospital, but hundreds granted that permission have received court injunctions that prevent their return to the islands.
The government began reopening a Christmas Island camp in December after a new law was passed allowing doctors rather than bureaucrats to decide which asylum seekers could come to Australia for hospital treatment. The law passed through the support of political parties outside the government and against the government's wishes.
A new doctors' panel to decide the medical transfers to Australia has not yet been appointed. The government had warned last year that the medical-treatment law could allow all the asylum seekers on the islands to come to Australia and encourage more of the risky people-smuggling journeys.
Critics argue that Christmas Island doesn't have the necessary medical facilities to cope with asylum seekers' medical needs. Morrison said the island's high-security Northwest Point Immigration Detention Center was ready to accept up to 250 men transferred for medical treatment and can be quickly ramped up to accommodate 600.
"My attention here is to ensure that vexatious acts ... by those who would seek to game the system to come to Australia using these loopholes will think twice about it," Morrison told reporters. Women will be transferred to a less secure facility on the island. Only 4 percent of asylum seekers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea are women, Immigration Minister David Coleman said.
Amnesty International's Australian refugee coordinator, Graham Thom, accused Morrison of attempting to mislead the public and demonizing refugees. "It is clear there has been a shift in public attitude in supporting humane solutions for unwell refugees and it is extremely disappointing that instead of looking for genuine solutions Mr. Morrison continues to fear monger and use these individuals as political pawns," Thom said in a statement.
Jon Stanhope, who as Christmas Island's administrator from 2012 to 2014 was its most senior Australia-appointed bureaucrat, also disagreed with sending sick asylum seekers there. Stanhope is also a former lawmaker who opposes both the government and opposition's policy of refusing asylum seekers' entry to Australia which has been condemned by the United Nations.
"It's a very strange decision. I think it's a decision that was driven by politics and not practicalities," Stanhope told Australian Broadcasting Corp. Papua New Guinea only houses men. The last children on Nauru left with their families in December to make new homes in the United States. President Donald Trump agreed early in his presidency to accept up to 1,250 refugees from Papua New Guinea and Nauru after "extreme vetting." As of Wednesday, only 493 had been resettled in the United States, the Home Affairs Department said in an email.
The department also said it has identified 57 men on the islands as having "adverse character findings," and therefore are unwelcome in Australia. The department confirmed media reports that they included an Iranian man allegedly charged with murder before reaching the camps, a Pakistani man accused of raping a child and a suspected Islamic extremist from Myanmar who transferred more than $700,000 from Nauru to Australia.