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17 May 2016

The standard of medical care provided to asylum seekers being held in offshore detention centres has been savaged by senior doctors including AMA President Professor Brian Owler amid claims lengthy delays in the medical evacuation of a burns victim contributed to his death.

Professor Owler, who was interviewed as part of an investigation by ABC’s Four Corners program into the death in 2014 of a Manus Island detainee from a bacterial infection, asked “Why do we accept that this death may have been inevitable? It wasn’t.”

The AMA President, who has been a vocal critic of the standard of health care provided to those being held in offshore detention centres, told the program such an outcome “just wouldn’t happen here [on the Australian mainland], and if it did happen, there would be consequences for the people involved”.

“It’s not moral or ethical to lock people up in detention on a tropical island and not provide them with adequate health care,” Professor Owler said.

Since the death of Manus Island detainee Hamid Khazei in 2014, several other cases raising concern about the standard of medical treatment provided in offshore detention centres have come to light.

Late last month, a 23-year-old Iranian refugee who set himself alight died following a delay of more than 24 hours in evacuating him from Nauru, prompting calls from AMA Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis for a coronial inquiry into the incident.

“People under the care of the Australian Government are entitled to the sorts of standards of care that we would expect in Australia,” Dr Parnis told Fairfax Media. “I think it will be essential that a coroner’s investigation take place.”

Just days after the incident, on 2 May, a young Somali woman also being held on Nauru set herself alight. She was rushed to the Republic of Nauru Hospital before being airlifted to the burns unit at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital the following morning.

The incidents, and claims that an asylum seeker raped while on Nauru who wanted to have her pregnancy terminated in Australia was instead sent to the Pacific International Hospital in Port Moresby despite the fact that abortion is illegal in Papua New Guinea, have intensified the focus on the standard of health care provided by the Government.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, a long-standing critic of Australia’s offshore detention regime, condemned the Government’s policy and demanded that asylum seekers be immediately moved to “humane conditions with adequate support and services”.

“There is no doubt that the current policy of offshore processing and prolonged detention is immensely harmful,” the UNHCR said.

In February, Professor Owler told an AMA forum on asylum seeker health that the prolonged detention of children was “a state-sanctioned form of child abuse”, and expressed grave concern that bureaucrats rather than doctors had the ultimate say over the care of asylum seekers.

But Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has rejected accusations that there were unnecessary delays in evacuating the critically injured Iranian man from Nauru, and the Labor Party has restated its bipartisan commitment to the offshore detention policy.

However, the policy is coming under pressure from another direction, after PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill ordered that the Manus Island detention centre be shut down following a ruling by the nation’s Supreme Court that it was illegal and unconstitutional.

The Government is scrambling to make alternative arrangements for the approximately 850 men being held on the island. Mr Dutton has insisted they will not be brought to Australia.

But the Government’s task has been complicated by indications that the Spanish infrastructure group Ferrovial, which has taken over a company contracted to manage the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres, does not see the provision of such services as part of its core business – though it has said it will honour existing contracts.

Professor Owler said it was time for a re-think of the country’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, especially children, and the AMA has called for the establishment of an independent statutory body of clinical experts to investigate and report on the health and welfare of asylum seekers.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 17 May 2016