Concerns over rapid asylum-seeker transfers

Construction underway at Nauru. (File: AAP)

Concerns are being raised about the plans for rapid transfers of asylum-seekers to Nauru and to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. 

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

If asylum seekers are fit enough to get on a boat, they should be fit enough to fly.

That's a basic operating principle of an Abbott government plan to transfer asylum seekers to an Australian overseas processing centre within 48 hours of being stopped at sea.

But, as Santilla Chingaipe reports, concerns are being raised about the plans for rapid transfers to Nauru and to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

 The new Coalition government says it's going ahead with plans to expand the detention centres on Manus and Nauru - enabling them to house 3,000 more asylum- seekers.

The new government says most health and other checks of asylum-seekers arriving by boat will be done in the overseas centres.

Previously, the process of carrying out health and security checks had taken several weeks - most commonly on Christmas Island.

The government says 48 hours should be long enough to make initial checks.

Mathew Batsuia is a Nauruan opposition MP.

He says he hopes the new government's rapid transfer plans doesn't result in more asylum-seekers being housed in tents on his island.

"You know they've conveyed to us when they were in opposition and they visited Nauru, they conveyed to us the plan to expand the centres. And I think our only plan is to ensure that Nauru is ready. I mean we've always held the provision that families and children should not be brought over to Nauru and staying here in tents. We would prefer that the facilities are more permanent for families and unaccompanied minors begin to arrive in Nauru, but the ship's sailed on that one. We've already seen families and unaccompanied minors come to Nauru."

Steve Hambleton is the President of the Australian Medical Association.

He's concerned that the 48-hour turnaround target may not allow proper health assessments.

"Well we certainly know that the asylum-seekers coming into Australia often have significant problems either they have mental health issues. They've been people here who have been tortured by their own countries, they've had difficult journies to get to Australia. That is a major concern. They also carry the sorts of diseases that we do not see necessarily in this country -- tuberculosis, malaria and other diseases. It's certainly possible to assess those medically but it does make it very difficult if the time-frame is short."

Pamela Curr, from the Melbourne-based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, agrees.

"It's very clear that you cannot do a proper health screening in 48 hours and get the results back. If we look at the people who've been transferred to Manus and Nauru already, we know that a substantial number have had to be transferred back to Australian hospitals for healthcare because effectively the (Immigration) Department got it wrong. We also know that of the six pregnant women who were transferred to Manus, three of those women lost their babies. That's a 50 per cent miscarriage rate."

Pamela Curr says under agreements with both the Nauru and PNG governments, Australia is supposed to ensure that the health checks of asylum-seekers are undertaken before asylum-seekers are transferred.

But she says the federal government has not followed through with those commitments.

"In particular, the PNG government asked for a sexually transmitted diseases health screening. You cannot get those results in 48 hours. My colleagues offshore tell me that the PNG government has a 2.5 billion dollar deficit (budget) and they will do whatever the Australian governments want, so effectively those agreements will be null and void. They will take people no matter what the health condition. As it was put to me, they don't look after their own people, so why would they look after asylum-seekers?"

Steve Hambleton from the Australian Medical Association says the only way to ensure that asylum-seekers are properly looked after is to create an independent body to oversee their physical and mental health.

"Well, it's very hard to know exactly what's going on in those places and that's why the AMA (Australian Medical Association) has been calling for an independent panel to monitor the health of asylum-seekers. We did have a panel that under the last government called DeHAG (Detention Health Advisory Group), but despite its best intentions it was severely constrained with its ability to monitor or speak out about those issues, so if we had an independent panel, we could confirm that people were being looked after appropriately and certainly the AMA is prepared to suggest some of its members that may wish to serve on that panel so that we can make sure that everyone is looked after appropriately."


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