Manus asylum seekers treated at local hospital despite million dollar health contract

Former Manus Island MP Ronny Knight says the local hospital is running on skeleton staff and "trying their best" to handle referrals from the Australian government's healthcare contractor.

The Australian Government pays millions of dollars to a medical care contractor to treat asylum seekers on Manus Island, but detainees are regularly being sent to the ill-equipped local hospital, in what advocates are calling an "unprecedented medical crisis".

Refugee advocates say 26 asylum seekers on Manus Island have attempted suicide or self-harmed since the Coalition's shock victory nearly two weeks ago and local health providers are struggling to cope.

While the Australian government has a $21.5 million contract with the operator of Port Moresby hospital, Pacific International Hospital (PIH), to provide care, many of those asylum seekers are being referred to the locally-funded East Lorengau hospital. 

The Lorengau Hospital on Manus Island, which is treating an increasing number of asylum seekers.

But former Manus Island MP Ronnie Knight told SBS News East Lorengau hospital staff are "run down" and "irate" after being left to treat the influx.

According to Mr Knight, who lives on the island, the PIH clinic operates only during business hours with one doctor and one nurse who "seem to disperse Panadol". 

"They simply refer them [asylum seekers] to our local hospital for treatment when in many cases, often psychological, our hospital cannot cater for this," he said.

Mr Knight said the local hospital was running on skeleton staff who are "trying their best", but lack the resources needed to treat the local population as well as the more than 500 asylum seekers still left on the island.

Former Manus MP Ronnie Knight.
Source: ABC

"Why do local staff on minimum wages have to use precious resources on people who are harming themselves while the contractor PIH [Pacific Island Hospital] is paid millions and acts as a referral service," Mr Knight said.

"The main anger from my people is simply that in our culture if you are responsible for such people you must care for them."

Iranian journalist and Manus Island detainee Behrouz Boochani told SBS News earlier this week the hospital was only able to accept a couple of refugees at a time - not the reported 26

"There are no facilities there, there are no extra beds there, so they cannot accept many refugees," he said. 

The East Lorengau Refugee Transit Center on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.
Source: AAP

National Justice Project principal solicitor George Newhouse, who has visited the island, told SBS News the contracted PIH facility was facing an "unprecedented crisis" and struggling to provide adequate care.

"It’s no more than a GP clinic in my view," he said.

"Anyone with serious condition needs to be evacuated from Manus Island either to Port Moresby or mainland Australia depending on the seriousness of the injury and illness.” 

A refugee on Manus Island.
Source: AAP

In a statement on Wednesday, a Department of Home Affairs spokesperson told SBS News PIH had a dedicated mental health ward.

The Department's website states that PIH is contracted to deliver health care to refugees, asylum seekers and non-refugees from a clinic based at the East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre.

"After-hours healthcare is available at East Lorengau Hospital (the local hospital)," the statement read. 

"The Australian Government continues to work closely with the Governments of PNG and Nauru to ensure transferees are provided with appropriate health and welfare support services," a Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said on Wednesday.

George Newhouse.
Source: AAP

In February this year, Guardian Australia reported the government had given PIH $21.5 million to treat asylum seekers on the island for a 10 months without finalising a contract.

"If the Australian government had put a fraction of that money to use rehabilitating and upgrading our hospital then there would be no issues," Mr Knight said. 

The dental section of Lorengau Hospital on Manus Island.
Source: Supplied

"We all can see that money coming to look after their health services is not trickling down." 

More asylum seekers petition for medevac 

Seventeen refugees and asylum seekers have been approved for medical treatment in Australia under the new medevac legislation, since it was passed in February. Fourteen applications are pending. 

Mr Newhouse said he expects that number to grow. 

"I would expect a steady number of applications given the declining health of those imprisoned on offshore gulags for over six years," he said.

"It makes sense that people will get sicker and sicker while the government is treating them in a cruel and inhumane way."

Another 38 asylum seekers have been sent to Australia for medical treatment in the same period without applying under the medevac legislation. 

Asylum seekers worried about medevac repeal

But the re-elected Coalition government plans to use its increased majority to repeal the medevac legislation. 

But it's unclear if the new-look Senate will block the move and stand by the legislation which gives doctors more say on the transfer of refugees and asylum seekers in offshore immigration facilities. 

Mr Newhouse said the prospect of its repeal has worried sick asylum seekers. 

"They’re extremely worried, it would have an incredibly harmful effect on individuals. All the medevac bill does is take the politics out of healthcare."

If you are struggling contact lifeline crisis support and suicide prevention on 13 11 14 or visit 

Published 31 May 2019 at 4:06pm, updated 31 May 2019 at 5:44pm
By Maani Truu, Rosemary Bolger