More than 40 refugees brought to Australia for medical treatment in months since Medevac law

Asylum seeker advocacy groups say there have been 11 suicide attempts on Manus Island following last weekend's federal election.

Refugee advocates say the Coalition's plan to repeal the Medevac law is a "death warrant" for asylum seekers in offshore detention after the number of people transferred to Australia from Manus Island and Nauru for medical treatment was revealed.

According to the Medical Evacuation Response Group (MERG) - a coalition of organisations tasked with responding to refugees in need of care - more than 40 asylum seekers have been brought to Australia for medical treatment since the Medevac bill became law in February this year.

This number includes people who have applied through the Medevac process and other critically ill people who have been transferred following lobbying by MERG.

A protester holds a placard during the Evacuate Manus and Nauru Protest in Sydney last year.
Source: AAP

But despite MERG claiming they receive an average of 11.5 applications for urgent assistance per day, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said repealing the bill was a priority, just three days after the Coalition was returned to power.

"Let me just make it very clear, it is our policy to reverse that legislation," Mr Frydenberg told reporters on Tuesday.

The Medevac law streamlines the process for refugees in offshore detention seeking urgent medical assistance.

Under the law, two Australian doctors are able to recommend a refugee's temporary transfer to Australia for medical treatment but the Home Affairs Minister maintains the power to deny the application. 

Kon Karapanagiotidis, chief executive officer of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, told SBS News that repealing the law is a matter of life and death.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison poses for photographs on Christmas Island after announcing it's reopening.
Source: AAP

"Since Medevac was passed, we've had 40 people medically transferred - those are all people who were at risk of loss of life, or loss of limb, or loss of organs. This is life and death," he said.

"All medevac is doing is saving lives and providing the only lifeline for critically ill people on Manus and Nauru to be brought to Australia for the medical care and treatment that they need."

Since the Coalition victory on Saturday, advocates say there has been a spike in self-harm among asylum seekers in offshore detention.

On Manus Island alone, 11 men have reportedly attempted suicide following the shock result.

If elected, the Labor Party had promised to increase Australia's humanitarian intake to 27,000 refugees a year and had agreed to accept New Zealand's offer to resettle 150 asylum seekers.

"The reelection of the Morrison government has been a catastrophe for refugees," Mr Karapanagiotidis said.  

"I have never seen so many people threatening self-harm, so many people self-harming, I've never seen such a spike in suicide in offshore detention camps, I've never seen people so demoralised and broken as I have seen after this election.

"People are utterly devastated because what it means is their lifeline for some compassion, some resolution and an end to limbo they've been living in is over."

On Monday, Manus Island detainee Abdul Aziz Muhamat told SBS Arabic24 that men on the island had been following the election closely and their "hopes were crushed".

Manus Island refugee Abdul Aziz Muhamat at the 2019 Martin Ennals Award ceremony in Geneva.
Source: EPA

"We were really hopeful. We thought a new government would come and we could start our lives again. It was a shock but I understand people inside Australia have different priorities," he said.

Sara Townend, the doctor responsible for organising the MERG response, said the team had so far been "working rapidly and around the clock" to asses critically ill refugees. 

"After almost six years the demand for assistance with applications has been huge,” she said.

In April it was revealed the government had spent $185 million dollars to reopen the Christmas Island Detention Centre, claiming it was necessary to stem the flow of sick refugees on Manus Island and Nauru who were approved for transfer under the Medevac legislation.

None of the 40 people transferred since the legislation were sent to Christmas Island

The government is expected to face opposition in the Senate when they move to repeal the bill, which was originally passed by Labor and independents against the Coalition's wishes.

As the current Senate supports the bill, the government will have to wait until the new Senate starts in July to move forward with the repeal.

If you are struggling contact lifeline crisis support and suicide prevention on 13 11 14 or visit

Published 23 May 2019 at 6:05pm, updated 24 May 2019 at 7:31am
By Maani Truu