Everything you need to know about the medevac debate

Confused by the recent debate over 'medevac' laws? Here are all the facts you need to know.

The political fight over laws allowing asylum seekers held in offshore detention centres to be moved to Australia if they are sick is heating up.

With parliament set to resume on 2 July, here's where the debate stands and what's happened recently with the laws.

What are the medevac laws?

The laws, which came into effect in March, allow for urgently sick asylum seekers held on Manus Island or Nauru to be transferred to Australia temporarily on the advice of two independent Australian doctors.

The person must be assessed as requiring medical or psychiatric assessment or treatment because they are not receiving appropriate treatment in Manus or Nauru.

But the transfer has to be approved within 72 hours by the minister. The minister can block the transfer if they suspect the person poses a national security risk or has a substantial criminal record.

However, if the minister refuses the transfer, an independent health advisory panel, which includes the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer, can review the decision.

It has 24 hours to conduct a clinical assessment of the sick person and if they believe the transfer should be approved, the minister must comply with that, unless the transfer poses security risks.

Since the laws have passed, 40 people have been brought to Australia for medical treatment.

Why was it needed?

Proponents of the law and refugee advocates point to the deaths of twelve people in offshore detention so far in arguing for the laws.

The death of Iranian Hamid Khazaei in 2014 was recently deemed by an Australian coroner as preventable had it not been for a series of clinical errors and delays.


He died after contracting a leg infection on Manus after an urgent doctor’s request to have him moved was delayed as immigration officials discussed whether his transfer was necessary.

Stories of self-harm and deteriorating mental health abound – since the federal election; almost a dozen men have reportedly attempted suicide.

What did the recent court ruling reveal?

A recent federal court decision has reignited the debate over the medevac laws and how it is interpreted.

It basically means doctors can approve a person’s transfer based on their medical records rather than having assessed them face-to-face.

The case revolved around a 29-year-old Iraqi man held on Nauru who was deemed by two doctors as needing urgent medical transfer to Australia. The doctors made their assessment based on the man’s medical records, not having seen him personally or physically examined him.

The Home Affairs Department secretary, disputing the transfer, argued there had to be “personal interaction or engagement” with the man.

But the court disagreed, saying the laws allowed doctors to assess patients “in person or not”.

What will the government do?

The government has been fiercely opposing the laws since its inception, first warning it would allow criminals and rapists to enter Australia and also that it would spur more boat arrivals.

Critics have pointed to the fact that the government allowed two accused murderers from Rwanda into Australia as part of a refugee swap deal with the US. And the warnings over an influx of boat arrivals did not eventuate in the lead up to the 18 May poll.

The Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has indicated he will appeal the Federal Court’s ruling on transfers based on assessments of medical records.

“We aren’t going to be forced into a position … where two doctors, two random GPs, can sign off not having seen a patient, for them to be able to come here,” he said.

The government has also vowed to repeal the medevac legislation entirely when parliament resumes in July.

Where to now?

In order for the laws to be scrapped, the government needs the support of the Senate crossbench, having the numbers in the House of Representatives.

The Centre Alliance, the Greens and Labor are in support of the laws. With One Nation and Cory Bernardi supporting the government, that leaves comeback senator Jacqui Lambie as the crucial vote in deciding the matter.

But a spokeswoman for the incoming senator Lambie has told SBS News she was not providing commentary on policy positions before parliament resumed on 2 July. 

4 min read
Published 21 June 2019 at 4:23pm
By Rashida Yosufzai
Source: SBS