Defend Medevac to save lives, say protesters

Defend Medevac protest in Sydney on November 9.
Defend Medevac protest in Sydney on November 9. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Refugee rights activists rallied across Australia on November 9 to defend the Urgent Medical Treatment Bill (Medevac), which was passed in February.

Medevac, while flawed and overly bureaucratic, has saved lives by enabling refugees held offshore to be brought to Australia for medical treatment. The legislation applies to about 600 refugees and asylum seekers on Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and has so far allowed 130 people to access urgent medical care.

The government is attempting to repeal the bill, with the Senate due to vote on it later this month.

Betelhem, a refugee formerly held on Nauru who came to Australia for medical treatment in 2015, told the 400-strong Melbourne rally of the inadequate medical treatment available on the island, including lack of medicines. She said before the Medevac law was passed, "politicians fought in court against bringing people to Australia".

Iranian refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani addressed the rally by phone from Manus Island. He spoke about the situation of asylum seekers who have been shifted from Manus to the Bomana detention centre in Port Moresby, saying most of them are mentally and physically sick.

They are kept in very harsh conditions, are starving and have no medical treatment, Boochani said.

Refugee Action Collective member and rally co-chair Margaret Sinclair said the Medevac law needs to be strengthened, because people have been brought to Australia but not received the medical treatment they need.

Christine Cummins, who formerly worked as a torture and trauma counsellor at the Christmas Island detention centre, said the recommendations she made while working there had been repeatedly ignored, causing the physical and mental health of detainees to deteriorate.

Mas, a refugee living in Australia on a temporary visa, spoke about the 30,000 people facing a similar situation and who are campaigning for permanent protection. They are planning a rally on December 7.

Federal Greens MP Adam Bandt spoke of the basic principle that “if you are sick, you should get the medical help you need”, adding “indefinite detention makes people sick”. Federal Labor MP Josh Burns expressed support for the Medevac law.

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