A Papua New Guinean woman has been held in a Brisbane detention centre for the last six weeks after seeking emergency medical care in the Torres Strait in February.
Grandmother Rapia Komonde was suffering acute appendicitis when she was taken by her husband Paiwe Komonde from their home in the PNG village of Sigabadaru to Saibai Island Medical Centre in The Torres Strait on February 18. Sigabadaru is one of a handful of PNG villages covered by the Torres Strait Treaty which allows free movement between the two countries.
The 55-year-old was airlifted to Thursday Island Hospital for surgery then to Cairns Regional Hospital a few days later for follow up treatment, when she was discharged on February 28, Australian Border Force (ABF) officers took her to Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre, where she has been ever since.
“I am not a criminal, I came for a medical reason, but the sent me to Brisbane, why? I have never been this far south, I have only ever been to Thursday Island once before,” Ms Komonde said.
Ms Komonde said that her husband was told at Thursday Island Hospital that, if he travelled to Cairns to act as his wife's escort and carer, that he would be arrested at Horn Island Airport by ABF Officers.
Ms Komonde said she was medevaced without anyone from her family.
Ms Komonde's village, Sigabaduru is one of 13 Western Province villages that fall under the Torres Strait Treaty which was ratified in 1985. The Treaty has provisions that allow traditional inhabitants from the 13 Treaty villages and the Torres Strait to move between both territories without a passport or visa to maintain traditional activities such as family events, religious ceremonies, fishing, and barter and market trade.
While visiting to access health services is not a provision of the Treaty, it has long been tolerated by Queensland Health and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
A spokesperson from DFAT said they were not involved in Ms Komonde's detention, and that this case is "a matter for Australian Border Force and Queensland Health."
Since being taken into detention, neither Queensland Health, Ms Komonde, or her family have been given an explanation from the Department of Home Affairs. It was only after Queensland regional newspaper Torres News and NITV News asked the department on April 10, that the Department of Home Affairs announced on April 11, that she will be returned to PNG “in coming days.”
Ms Komonde's twin brother, Abai Bann, who is an Australian citizen living on Thursday Island said: "When I asked my daughter who lives in Cairns to go and visit her, she was surprised that there were personnel from Border Force sitting out the front of her room as security, and they were there until she was discharged from hospital three days later."
Having left home with only the clothes on her back, Mr Bann said his daughter had tried to give her some clothes, toiletries and nappies for her to take back home to her village for her grandchildren, whom she helps raise with her daughter.
"My daughter was shocked that Border Force searched everything they brought in," he said.
"Her daughter and grandkids there rely on her help, they are just waiting for her to come back, but they won't release her. They won't tell us why is she is there. Even the doctors on Thursday Island and down in Cairns don't know what's going on."
Ms Komonde said today that she has yet to receive word of when she will be sent home.
Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service acting executive director of Medical Services Dr Tony Brown confirmed Ms Komonde's situation and that she travelled to Cairns for specialised treatment and that they contacted ABF as per procedural requirements.
Dr Brown said any PNG nationals that present at health facilities in the Torres Strait are treated according to clinical need just like anyone else and that this situation has not changed.
"All Queensland Department of Health facilities, including those in the Torres Strait, provide emergency treatment on humanitarian principles to anyone in need, regardless of nationality or personal circumstances."
"If deemed clinically necessary, PNG nationals presenting to any Torres Strait island health facilities will be evacuated by air to a larger facility such as Thursday Island Hospital or Cairns Hospital for further assessment and treatment," he said.
"Once their condition has been stabilised and it is deemed clinically safe to do so, they are referred back to the appropriate health authorities in PNG with notes for follow-up care."
Dr Brown said that this is routine Queensland Health procedure.
"Upon completion of treatment at Cairns Hospital ... the Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service was expecting [Ms Komonde] to be returned to Thursday Island for further transport back to Saibai so they could return to PNG.
"This did not happen and we received unconfirmed reports the patient had been taken into custody by the Australian Border Force.
"We have sought clarification from the Australian Border Force on the patient's situation but have yet to receive one.”
A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs said that Ms Komonde was taken on February 28 for “...further medical care before she could be safely returned to her home village in PNG. In consultation with the patient, it was deemed this care could be best provided in Brisbane by the Department’s contracted health service provider.”
However Ms Komonde denies this saying she did not know why she had been moved to Brisbane.
Ms Komonde said she she has only spoken to ABF on two occasions while being in detention in Brisbane, the first, several weeks after her arrival to the Brisbane facility and the second the day after Torres News made inquiries to the Department of Home Affairs on April 10.
“Just before Easter a woman from Border Force came, I asked if she had my medical records, she told me when I go back I would be sent to Port Moresby but I said I wanted to go back through the Torres Strait, that was the way I came, the woman said nothing and just left,” Ms Komonde said.
Calls for review of arrangements
According to a spokesperson from the PNG Consulate General in Brisbane when a PNG National from the Treaty villages is medevaced into Australia through the Torres Strait that they should be sent home via the same route.
Councillor Kebei Salee, a community leader from Ms Komonde's PNG village of Sigabadaru said: “She should not be sent to Port Moresby as that is what happens to criminals, she should be returned to her point of entering Australia which is Saibai.”
“Border Force should not intervene, unless that person has done something wrong.
“No one knows why this has happened to Rapia, also to deny the rights of a patient to have the comfort of a carer from family members is wrong.
“I am very surprised that Border Force have been involved and stopping the rights of patients. If the doctors agree, they should not be involved, they are not breaking law.
Mr Salee called for an urgent review of Treaty arrangements regarding medical treatment.
“The Australian government need to look at foreign policy, they need to look at it in on humanitarian grounds, it's unfair as she is not a criminal,” Cr Salee said.
Mr Bann is worried as his sister is very stressed and doesn't understand why she is being detained.
"When I was down there last year visiting my kids and my parents, there was an uncle of mine, he was down there for 12 months, just in Cairns for medical treatment, and he was able to just walk freely around no problems.
When I asked him now when he was in the hospital if the same thing happen to him he said 'no'.
"I worked for Quarantine for 15 years until September last year and I have never heard of anything like this.
"When I used to work on Boigu, sometimes we cover for Immigration when they are not on the island, and nothing like this ever happened.
"Normally when something like this happens, you have fill out some paperwork, even if it's after surgery in the ward, but Border Force here never came to see her."
Mr Bann thinks ABF in the Torres Strait may have forgotten to complete vital paperwork.
Ms Komonde said she was relieved to hear the Department of Home Affairs had stated she would be going home in “coming days,” but it is not clear when this may be.
Produced in partnership with Queensland regional newspaper Torres News.