Australia racked up more than $1 million in legal costs in the past seven months over the medical transfers of refugees and asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus Island, a senior home affairs official has said.
The official also confirmed that in 34 cases, sick refugees and asylum seekers were only transferred to Australia following a Federal Court order, and in 17 other cases detainees were only transferred once a court case had commenced.
An increasing number of medical transfers for people detained in offshore detention by Australia were sought throughout 2018, which also saw the five-year anniversary of a hardline policy banning asylum seekers who arrive by boat from ever settling in Australia.
Ongoing reports of severe mental and physical health problems on Nauru and Manus culminated in the "Medevac bill" passing the parliament last week when a coalition of Labor and crossbench politicians teamed up to defeat the government on the floor of the parliament.
The bill makes it easier for sick refugees and asylum seekers currently on Nauru and Manus to be transferred to Australia by placing the decision into the hands of two doctors, and then, if the home affairs minister disagrees, an independent medical panel. The minister can veto transfers on the grounds of national security or seriously criminality.
Asked in a Senate Estimates hearing on Monday night by Greens senator Nick McKim how much money the department spent "fighting in the courts" to prevent medical transfers, home affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo took issue with the phrasing.
"[It's] how much money did we spend on relevant litigation, rather than senator McKim’s characterisation of who was fighting who," he said.
But the department did confirm the sum: Pip de Veau, first assistant secretary of legal general counsel, told McKim it amounted to $1,003,073 so far in the current financial year spanning from July 1, 2018 until Jan. 31, 2019.
The figure indicates a huge rise in the number of medical transfers sought by detainees. At the last Senate Estimates in October, the committee heard the costs for the 2017-2018 financial year amounted to $275,000.
De Veau said about 51 cases had been brought, resulting in a total of 133 refugees and asylum seekers being transferred.
Of the 51 cases, 34 resulted in a transfer being ordered by the court – usually following an urgent pre-trial hearing known as an interlocutory – while 17 involved transfers taking place in the middle of a court battle before any orders had been made.
"And then a further 81 cases representing 209 individuals were transferred where lawyers engaged with the department and no litigation commenced at all," de Veau said.
De Veau said the figures vindicated the department, contradicting the "public discourse suggesting that we’re fighting every case tooth and nail in the courts".
"The statistics simply suggest that’s not the case," de Veau said.
Some of the cases that went all the way to a court order involved kids who were suicidal and others who had entered a catatonic state with resignation syndrome.
Advocates have criticised the government for claiming success over removing all children from Nauru (there are three still there, but they are expected to fly to the United States to be resettled shortly) while opposing medical transfers in the Federal Court.
The estimates hearing also revealed the government's plan to transfer sick refugees and asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus Island directly to the soon-to-be-reopened detention centre on Christmas Island.
Pezzullo said it was policy to transfer people to the Christmas Island centre, under the Medevac bill that passed the parliament last week against the government's wishes.
"That is outrageous," McKim told the committee.
"It’s not for me to comment on," Pezzullo replied. "It goes without saying that if specialised treatment is only available in the mainland then the mainland will of course be utilised."
McKim said it was a "clear denial of the clear intent of the parliament, which is that people get access to better medical treatment which is not available on Christmas Island".
Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.
Contact Lane Sainty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.