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Australian and PNG leaders must act urgently to save lives


The misery of indefinite detention in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is pushing increasing numbers of refugees and people seeking asylum to suicide attempts and self-harm, a new report by the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) and Amnesty International finds today.

In the report, Until when? The forgotten men on Manus Island, RCOA and Amnesty International paint a stark picture of a traumatised refugee population which has been hit hard by Australia’s recent healthcare and counselling service cuts, as well as continued threats to their safety.

“The worsening health and safety crisis on Manus Island demonstrates that Australia’s offshore processing system has failed. Three people have already committed suicide, driven to despair by years in an open-air prison, and in the last two months at least five others have attempted to end their lives, including one man who swallowed razor blades and nail clippers,” said Claire Mallinson, National Director of Amnesty International Australia.

“Following public pressure, the Australian government has brought some child refugees from offshore detention in Nauru to Australia for medical treatment, but the situation for the men on Manus Island is just as acute. Australia must urgently work with PNG and other countries in the region to find sustainable solutions to this crisis, including by ending offshore processing and speeding up settlement to third countries.”

Waiting for months
Over the past year the Australian government has halved the number of mental health staff available to the refugees and people seeking asylum it sends to PNG. It has also terminated torture and trauma counselling services.

As the new report outlines, it is extremely difficult for refugees to access healthcare in PNG. There is now just one small clinic to serve the over 600 refugees and asylum seekers remaining on Manus Island, as well as the local hospital which is severely understaffed, has no interpreters and often has no ambulance available.

“For the men on Manus Island getting proper healthcare has never been harder. Only a handful are transferred to Australia, and those in PNG increasingly have to pay for their own healthcare and navigate the healthcare system without interpreters,” said Dr Joyce Chia, RCOA's Director of Policy.

“In July a coroner found that the death of Hamid Khazaei, who died from sepsis after cutting his foot on Manus Island, was the result of a catalogue of delays and errors. We do not want to see another preventable death.”

If they cannot be treated on Manus Island people are transferred to PNG’s capital Port Moresby, but specialist treatment is often not available there either. For many people the best hope of recovery is to be sent to Australia for treatment, but over the past year there have been virtually no medical transfers to Australia, with only nine transfers in the last 18 months.

As of October 2018, RCOA and Amnesty International recorded the cases of 70 people with serious health conditions, including hernia, stomach and gastric issues, vision impairment and severe mental health issues, who had been transferred to Port Moresby for medical treatment. Many had been there for over six months with little improvement to their condition.

Disturbingly, media reports suggested that many of the men in Port Moresby were returned to Manus Island ahead of last week’s APEC summit, some allegedly before finalising their treatments, to free up hospital space for delegates and conference staff.

Fear of attack
There is also little protection for refugees and people seeking asylum against threats of violence and many people fear leaving their housing or moving around alone. In the past year a refugee has been stabbed repeatedly with a screwdriver in a robbery; two intoxicated men made death threats to those in one of the ‘transit centres’; and one man was attacked twice, once with a machete. Very few of these incidents are investigated.

Amnesty International and RCOA are calling on the Australian government, the architect of the abusive offshore detention regime, to urgently ensure people with serious physical and mental health conditions and those whose safety cannot be guaranteed are settled in Australia or a third country.

The organisations have together collected 125,000 signatures from people opposing Australia’s harsh offshore detention policies.

“We need to see a complete overhaul of the way that Australia, PNG, Nauru and other countries in the region respond to people on the move,” said Claire Mallinson.

“From opening up safe and legal routes for travel, to committing to hosting more refugees, and processing asylum applications quickly to reduce the chance that people seeking asylum will make dangerous boat journeys, there are many things Australia and regional countries can do to end the hell on Manus Island and prevent such suffering in future.”

Joyce Chia said:

“The Australian government wants us to forget the men on Manus. They have done everything they can to suppress the truth, but these brave men there have kept speaking up. They are still Australia’s responsibility, and what has happened to them is still Australia’s shame.”

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