Friday marks two years since Australia’s short-lived Medevac laws were repealed by the federal parliament: but dozens of asylum seekers and refugees who were transferred from Papua New Guinea and Nauru are still languishing in detention waiting for essential medical treatment.
The medevac legislation, initiated by Wentworth independent MP Dr Kerryn Phelps, gave doctors (rather than home affairs department officials) primary decision-making power in the transfer of asylum seekers and refugees from Australia’s offshore immigration regime to Australia for acute medical treatment.
For eight months in 2019, before they were repealed, the medevac laws saw 192 people transferred to Australia for medical treatment doctors judged they could not receive offshore.
But a new report from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Healthcare denied: Medevac and the long wait for essential medical treatment in Australian immigration detention highlights ongoing failures to provide basic medical care for people brought from offshore and detained in Australia.
“The Medevac regime was intended to ensure that people detained in offshore facilities with serious health conditions could access essential medical services,” Lucy Geddes, PIAC Senior Solicitor and the report’s lead author, said.
It is absolutely appalling that two years later, people are still waiting for treatment for painful and debilitating conditions including severe gum disease, chest pain and heart palpitations. One of our clients suffered an excruciating knee injury while being detained on Manus Island. When he was finally transferred to Australia and able to see an orthopaedic specialist, the specialist found that his knee was inoperable due to the severe damage and prolonged lack of treatment.
The report argues the commonwealth has a legal duty of care to the people it detains, and that continuing to hold members of the Medevac cohort in unsuitable facilities – including hotels – indefinitely, without adequate medical treatment, is in breach of these legal obligations. The report makes a series of recommendations to improve the quality, timeliness and oversight of healthcare within Australia’s immigration detention system.
More than 40 refugees and asylum seekers, most of them medevac transferees, are still being held in Melbourne’s Park Hotel in Carlton. More than half of the cohort currently in the hotel was infected with Covid during an outbreak in October and November.
Before it was a government-decreed ‘alternative place of detention’, the hotel, under its former name Rydges, was used for hotel quarantine and was the epicentre of Victoria’s second Covid wave.
A government inquiry found, “around 90 per cent of Covid-19 cases in Victoria since late May 2020 were attributable to the outbreak at Rydges”.
“The combination of delayed treatment and long-term confinement to a hotel room has also exacerbated some existing medical conditions. Since being transferred to Australia, the conditions of onshore detention have resulted in our clients’ mental health deteriorating to the point they have been at risk of suicide,’ Geddes said.
The PIAC report will be formally launched Monday.