The Australian government said Wednesday it would reopen a mothballed island detention camp in anticipation of a new wave of asylum-seekers arriving by boat after Parliament passed legislation that would give sick asylum-seekers easier access to mainland hospitals.
The Christmas Island immigration detention camp, south of Jakarta, Indonesia, was a favorite target of people smugglers who brought asylum-seekers from Asia, Africa and the Middle East in rickety boats from Indonesian ports before the trade virtually stopped in recent years.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said a security committee of his cabinet agreed to reopen the camp on Wednesday on the advice of senior security officials.
The decision was made before the Senate passed legislation 36 votes to 34 that would allow doctors instead of bureaucrats to decide which asylum-seekers on camps on the Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru can fly to Australia for hospital treatment.
Morrison’s conservative government argues that the bill, passed 75 to 74 by the House of Representatives on Tuesday, will undermine Australia’s tough refugee policy. The policy banishes asylum-seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat to the Pacific island camps in a bid to deter other asylum-seekers from making the perilous voyage.
“My job now is to ensure that the boats don’t come,” Morrison told reporters. “My job now is to do everything in my power and the power of the government to ensure what the Parliament has done to weaken our border does not result in boats coming to Australia.”
The legislation demonstrates the government’s weak hold on power and will put asylum-seeker policy at the forefront of campaigning ahead of elections that Morrison wants to hold in May. He has ruled out calling a snap election on the refugee issue.
Morrison said he would repeal the “foolish law” if his government were re-elected.
Australian governments rarely lose votes in the House of Representatives, where parties need a majority to form an administration. Legislation has only been passed in the House against a government’s will in 1929, 1941, 1962 and 2013.
The ruling coalition lost its single-seat majority when former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quit politics after he was deposed by his party colleagues in August. Another lawmaker has since quit the government as part of the bitter fallout over the leadership change.
Refugee advocates applaud the law that they regard as a more humanitarian approach toward asylum-seekers.
The Senate passed similar amendments on medical evacuations despite ruling party objections on the last day Parliament sat last year.
Australian security agencies warned in December that if those amendments became law, asylum-seekers would likely head to Australia again in significant numbers.
The people smuggling boat traffic has all but stopped in the past five years with the government promising that any refugees who arrive on Australian shores by boat will never be allowed to settle there.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten on Tuesday re-drafted the amendments passed by the Senate in December in an attempt to make the law less likely to attract a new wave of asylum-seekers, who used to arrive in Australia at a rate of more than a boat a day.