Protesters holding banners march in Sydney to urge the Australian government to end the refugee crisis on Manus Island on November 4, 2017.

© 2017 PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
(Sydney) – An Australian bill to change the current system of medical transfers would risk the health of refugees and asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, Human Rights Watch said today. On August 16, 2019, Human Rights Watch made a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019.

Australia’s offshore processing policy has had a severe impact on the physical and mental health of refugees and asylum seekers sent to Papua New Guinea and Nauru. The medical transfers provisions facilitated bringing refugees and asylum seekers from the two countries to Australia for medical treatment. Under the law, if two or more treating doctors assess that refugees or asylum seekers on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island or Nauru require urgent medical treatment, they and their families should be transferred to Australia.

“Medical facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru have proven unable to cope with the complex medical needs of asylum seekers and refugees,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “For some, woefully inadequate medical treatment over the years has meant that health concerns have become more serious and now require urgent attention.”

The bill introduced by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton would repeal the medical transfer provisions and reinstate the government’s sole authority to make decisions about medical transfers. The bill will enable the return of people to Papua New Guinea or Nauru after treatment.

Before the medical transfer provisions passed in February 2019, the Australian government had delayed or denied medical transfers of refugees and asylum seekers against the recommendations of doctors, sometimes for months or years. Lawyers representing refugees or asylum seekers often had to take the government to court in order for medical transfers to be approved. The coroner’s report into the death of an Iranian, Hamid Khazaei, found that his death was “preventable” and a result of significant delays in his transfer from Manus Island to Australia. It recommended that doctors working offshore should be able to approve medical transfers to Australia.

“Australia’s offshore processing system has taken a huge toll on the health of many refugees and asylum seekers,” Pearson said. “Australia has an obligation to ensure they receive needed medical treatment.”