Scott Morrison on Wednesday became the first prime minister to visit Christmas Island, touring the newly-reopened detention centre, which he said will house detainees seeking medical care who are deemed too dangerous to go to mainland Australia.
Medical evacuation laws that passed parliament against the government’s wishes last month make it easier for sick asylum seekers to come to Australia, although the immigration minister can still reject transfers based on national security grounds.
“Any time the people smugglers see me they see a brick wall… any time they see Bill Shorten they see an open door. That’s what my record demonstrates,” Morrison told reporters yesterday.
He denied reopening Christmas Island was an invitation to people smugglers to try their luck again. No boats have arrived since the laws passed two weeks ago.
“What they are waiting for is for Bill Shorten to be prime minister,” Morrison said.
Of the 950 asylum seekers still on Manus Island and Nauru, 57 have been accused of crimes including murder, child sexual assault, drug trafficking and terror activity.
Morrison was asked if that means the other 900 could safely go to the mainland, but he said they had still tried to “illegally enter” Australia.
He said Christmas Island was a hardened facility that could be used to deter riots, and it was a disincentive for asylum seekers who “game the system”.
“If there were to be a resurgence in illegal boat activity, this is the transfer point … they would be quickly processed here and they would be transferred to Nauru,” he said.
The government has budgeted $1.44 billion over four years to reopen the centre.
Opposition Leader Shorten said Morrison was running a marketing campaign to people smugglers.
“A frolic to Christmas Island – what a waste of money,” he told a business summit in Sydney.
Catherine Stubberfield from the UN refugee agency said the long-term, arbitrary detention of asylum seekers was causing harm.
“Those who are now ill among them are unlikely to recover in a remote, formal detention environment such as Christmas Island,” she said.
Former Christmas Island administrator Jon Stanhope said reopening the detention centre was a stunt.
“When I see our prime minister going to Christmas Island to inspect an empty detention centre, for me it conjures up images of Donald Trump and his national emergency,” he told ABC’s Radio National.
Nobody has so far applied under the new medical evacuation laws, which came into effect on Saturday.
But 900 patients and family members had already been evacuated to the Australian mainland for health reasons, under the government’s previous laws.
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