Weekly media wrap - 24 March 2019

Refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and other countries were among the victims of the Christchurch terrorist attacks last week. Khaled and Hamza Mustafa, a Syrian father and son, were the first to be buried this week. Abdul Aziz, a former refugee from Afghanistan, was hailed as a hero for chasing off the gunman at Linwood mosque. Meanwhile, Australian Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds linked the Christchurch terrorist attacks with parliament’s passing of the medevac bill.

Doctors signed off on the first applications for medical transfer under the new medevac bill. The applications were expected to be put to Department of Home Affairs Secretary Michael Pezzullo and Immigration Minister David Coleman by the end of the week.

Refugees living on Nauru were exposed to potentially deadly asbestos after local workers left it next to the Fly Camp settlement. Documents leaked to the ABC say refugees have been ‘using the asbestos to build sheds’. 

Sprent Dabwido, former President of Nauru, called for an end to the offshore processing of refugees and said he regrets agreeing to reopen Australia’s offshore detention centre on the island. Mr Dabwido has applied for asylum in Australia after being classified as an ‘enemy of the state’ by current Nauruan President Baron Waqa.

SBS News reported that a backlog in citizenship applications is taking a toll on refugees living in Australia who, among other things, cannot apply for passports until citizenship is conferred.

Weekly media wrap - 19 March 2019

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and members of the Coalition have continued to claim that refugees transferred to Australia for medical treatment under the medevac arrangements will equate to Australians losing out on medical services. In response, a number of health care associations and hospitals stated that the Australian system has the capacity to provide medical treatment to asylum seekers and refugees without impacting Australians. 

Hakeem Al-Araibi, Bahraini-born refugee and footballer, became an Australian citizen at a ceremony in Melbourne alongside over 200 new citizens. Following his two-and-a-half-month ordeal in a Thai prison from late 2018 where he was detained due to Bahrain’s extradition request, he returned to Australia in February and completed the citizenship test. 

The United Nations voiced its concern over a plan to relocate 23,000 Rohingya refugees currently in Bangladesh to a remote island. Bangladesh proposed the relocation due to the chronic overcrowding at Cox’s Bazar where approximately 730,000 Rohingya are currently taking shelter. Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee stated that the island of the proposed relocation may not even be habitable, and fears relocation could create a ‘new crisis’. 

Weekly media wrap - 11 March 2019

Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited Christmas Island following his announcement that the government will reopen its immigration detention facility in the remote external Australian territory. The government budgeted approximately $1.4 billion over the next four years to reopen the centre. 

Morrison announced that asylum seekers currently on Manus Island or Nauru who are deemed a risk to Australia will be sent to Christmas Island’s North West Point facility if they apply for medical transfer under the newly passed medical evacuation bill. This cohort includes 57 men, including those allegedly charged with murder, sexual and violent assaults and terrorist activities.

Government health contractor IHMS will employ an additional 60 medical practitioners on Christmas Island, including a general surgeon, an anaesthetist and 35 mental health professionals. The expanded team is designed to eliminate the need for any transfers to the Australian mainland.

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton warned that asylum seekers brought to the mainland under the so-called medevac bill would likely go on to become Australian citizens, an outcome he argues is against the wishes of the Australian community. Morrison supported that assertion, further warning that these asylum seekers would need to be housed through their claims, resulting in Australian citizens missing out on public housing. 

UNHCR’s Catherine Stubberfield criticised the reopening of the Christmas Island facility, arguing that ill asylum seekers are ‘unlikely to recover in a remote, formal detention environment’.

Weekly media wrap - 2 March 2019

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton claimed that the newly passed medical transfer legislation would result in Australians missing out on healthcare as a result of the arrival of refugees in Australia for medical care. This claim received criticism, including from independent MP Kerryn Phelps, who said that about 70 people were likely to need emergency transfer. The so-called medevac bill was passed by Parliament earlier this month and given royal assent this week.

The Nauru government passed a new law that will ban telemedicine for residents of the island nation, which has led Médecins Sans Frontières to suspend its psychological services. Under the new law, overseas medical transfers will not be approved ‘on the recommendation of an overseas health practitioner by telemedicine examination or diagnosis’. Refugee advocates said that these new laws could effectively block medical evacuations at the request of Australia.

A list of jobs has been advertised on Christmas Island by International Medical Health Services (contracted by the Australian Government to provide care for people in immigration detention) in anticipation that a number of people will be transferred from offshore processing to Australia for medical reasons. The roles advertised include a mental health nurse, psychologist, clinical psychologist and nurse radiographer.

The last four refugee children departed Nauru this week, having been transferred to the US amongst a total of 19 people for resettlement. Another 22 men from Manus Island were also transferred to the US to be resettled under the arrangement made by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. 

An inquest was held this week into the death of the Iranian refugee Omid Masoumali, who was detained on Nauru for almost three years. The coroner, Terry Ryan, has been examining the health and medical evacuation services provided, and what could have been done to prevent the death.

Local employees of Paladin Security, contracted by the Australian Government for services to offshore processing centres on Manus Island, reportedly walked off the job this week over low pay and poor working conditions. The Guardian Australia was told that employees of the contracted health clinic for asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island, Pacific International Hospital, as well as cleaning staff and bus drivers, also walked off the job because they had no security.

Weekly media wrap - 25 February 2019

Home Affairs Secretary Michael Pezzullo revealed during Senate estimates that sick refugees and asylum seekers in offshore detention will be sent to Christmas Island, not the mainland, under new medevac laws. Shire of Christmas Island CEO David Price said the island is not equipped to deal with people sent there in poor health. Lawyers representing refugee advocacy organisations said they will launch legal challenges on medical transfers to the island. Meanwhile, the Nauruan government responded to the medevac laws by banning residents of Nauru from being granted medical transfers if the referral is based on online consultations. 

The federal government faced ongoing scrutiny for its decision to award contracts to provide security at the Manus Island detention centre, worth up to $423 million, to inexperienced contractor Paladin through a non-competitive tender process. The opposition asked the Auditor General to examine the contract, and the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Peter O’Neil, said he would welcome an investigation into the affair. Paladin Director Ian Stewart defended the company’s record and disputed claims of corruption.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reiterated her offer to resettle refugees from Nauru and Manus Island, including single men, during a visit by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to the country. Mr Morrison again rejected the offer. Opposition immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann said Labor will accept the offer if elected.

During Senate estimates, Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin blamed a lack of information sharing from the Department of Home Affairs for the detention of refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi in Thailand.

Two sisters from Saudi Arabia who are trying to seek asylum in Australia said they have been stuck in Hong Kong for more than six months. The two women said they were prevented from boarding a connecting flight to Australia and were intercepted at the airport by diplomats from Saudi Arabia. The case is the second high-profile example this year of Saudi women seeking to escape their country.

Weekly media wrap - 16 February 2019

The medical evacuation bill passed through both houses of Parliament. This amendment to the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) will give doctors greater powers in deciding whether asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island and Nauru should be transferred to Australia for medical treatment. Ministerial discretion still applies to an extent. The passing of this bill, with the support of Labor, the Greens and various independents, was the first time a federal government has lost a vote on its own legislation in almost 80 years.

While the bill was being debated in the Senate, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced plans to reopen the Christmas Island detention centre and strengthen Operation Sovereign Borders. The Prime Minister claimed that these contingency measures are necessary due to what he predicts will be an increase in asylum seeker boats. Since the passing of the bill, The Guardian Australia and SBS News have provided information on how it may affect the situation for ill asylum seekers and refugees currently in offshore detention. 

Bahraini refugee Hakeem al-Araibi returned to Australia following his release from a Thai prison. The 25-year-old Australian football star was detained on his honeymoon in November 2018 by Thai authorities acting on the advice of an Interpol red notice and an extradition request from Bahrain. The extradition case was subsequently dropped by Thai authorities after Bahrain abandoned its request.

Abdul Aziz Muhamat, a Sudanese refugee detained on Manus Island, received a prestigious international human rights award in Geneva. The Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders recognises people who demonstrate an outstanding commitment to human rights despite huge risks. Mr Muhamat received the award for his advocacy and awareness-raising of the dire conditions for detained refugees on Manus Island, including sending over 3500 mobile phone messages to a journalist to create a podcast. Mr Muhamat was granted a visa by Switzerland to fly to Geneva to accept the award, and will be returned to PNG promptly.

The High Court of Australia rejected a stateless man’s challenge to Australia’s indefinite detention system. Lawyers for the stateless man, who has spent over nine years in immigration detention in Australia, attempted to reopen the 2004 Al-Kateb v Godwin ruling, which effectively enabled indefinite detention in Australia.

Weekly media wrap - 14 February 2019

Independent MP Dr Kerryn Phelps put forward a bill proposing an amendment to the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) that establishes an independent medical advice panel for the transfer of asylum seekers and refugees from Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Government ministers oppose the Bill, saying that its passing would result in the transfer of one thousand people within weeks. The Bill is due for a vote next week.

The ABC’s Four Corners reported that a number of Saudi women have been prevented from reaching Australia by airline liaison officers (ALOs) stationed in airports in transit countries. The investigation followed the high-profile case of Rahaf Al-Qunun, a Saudi woman stranded in Bangkok and given protection in Canada. ALOs advise governments and airlines on whether to allow a person to board, in some cases refusing embarkation when they suspect a person will apply for asylum upon arrival in Australia.

Refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi appeared at an extradition hearing in Bangkok. Mr al-Araibi is a Bahrainian national granted refugee protection in Australia. Bahrain has requested his extradition from Thai authorities after he was arrested on holiday there.