SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Pacific island nation of Nauru will not allow doctors to remotely recommend the medical transfer of asylum seekers to Australia, under a new rule that could thwart an easing of Australia’s hardline immigration policy.
Australia’s government suffered an embarrassing defeat in parliament last week when opposition and independent lawmakers voted to allow doctors to transfer some 1,000 men and women held in Nauru and Papua New Guinea if they need medical care.
Nauru’s new rules, gazetted last Friday but first reported by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper on Tuesday, make that more difficult by preventing patients diagnosed remotely, such as by internet video call, from being evacuated.
Nauru’s government did not announce or explain the rule change, which was published on its website, and did not answer phone calls seeking comment after hours on Tuesday.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was not clear how the change will play out.
“I think what’s happened in Nauru is a good example of what happens and how Labor didn’t think through what playing around with border protection laws will do,” he told Melbourne’s 3AW radio, referring to the opposition Labor party.
The government faces an election due by May and has been seeking to frame the vote as a referendum on national security.
To deter asylum seekers from attempting dangerous voyages, Australia sends those intercepted at sea to camps in PNG or Nauru, and refuses to grant them residency - a policy criticized internationally but effective at halting boat arrivals.
Morrison said last week allowing medical transfers would encourage refugees to resume the boat journeys. He announced the re-opening of a controversial detention center on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean to handle prospective arrivals.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was asked on Tuesday if asylum seekers transferred for medical treatment would be sent to Christmas Island rather than the mainland.
“We’ll have a look at the individual cases, but that’s the default position,” he told reporters in Canberra.
“In most cases I think people can be held in detention and then returned back once they’ve received the medical attention, or hopefully back to their country of origin,” Dutton said.
Reporting by Tom Westbrook; editing by Darren Schuettler