The federal government has been criticised for not ruling out sending pregnant women and children to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea to have their asylum applications processed, despite them being put at risk from malaria.
Critics say young children and pregnant women can’t be treated with anti-malarial drugs.
Murray Silby reports.
The federal government has staked its political credibility in relation to the asylum seeker issue on its regional settlement arangement with Papua New Guinea.
Under the arangement, all asylum seekers to arrive by boat will be sent to Papua New Guinea for their applications to be processed and if found to be refugees they will be settled in PNG, not in Australia.
The government says that might include pregnant women and children.
Australian Greens’ leader Christine Milne says that would expose them to potentially fatal consequencs.
“We’ve had health experts telling the government that children under five and pregnant women should not take anti-malarial drugs. That in children they (the drugs) can cause kidney failure, pscychiatric disturbance and in pregnant women they can cause miscarriage. The government knew that eight months ago and yet they sent women to Manus Island, six have come back pregnant women, three of them have miscarried.”
Immigration Minister Tony Burke says by not ruling out sending women and children to Manus Island, he’s actually taking the compassionate approach.
“If for example, I carved out children of a particular age, it would take about a fortnight before we saw boatloads of children of that age being pushed across the Indian Ocean and that is not a compassionate way to behave. So my policy principle is that people, everyone will end up being sent offshore, but they will be sent at a time that I am confident they are safe, that their accommodation is appropriate and that services are appropriate.”
But that claim is challenged by ChilOut, a lobby group that campaigns for the release of children from detention centres.
ChilOut campaign director Sophie Peer says Mr Burke’s claim is wrong.
“It’s simply not true. There’s no evidence to suggest that that would be the case. It’s just false to suggest to the Australian public that there are tens of thousands of women and children sitting on the shores of Indonesia or Malaysia waiting to jump on a boat if Australia starts having a humane policy. The boat journey is undertaken by very few people. It is a very risky journey regardless of the end place of detention or place of freedom. It’s still a journey that very few will undertake, regardless of what Australia does.”
Sophie Peer says local Manus Island women and children are themselves living with the dangers of malaria.
“Absolutely. It’s a dire health situation and if Australia is talking about being a regional leader, absolutely there is a serious malarial concern on Manus Island. It’s one of the worst places in the world for malaria and absolutely, the local children and women and the whole population are exposed to health risks and why Australia should knowingly add to that asylum seeker women and children is just beyond comprehension.”
Head of the Department of Social Sciences and International Studies at Curtin University Alexey Muraviev is also critical of the Labor government policy.
Dr Muraviev says the number of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia is only likely to increase, as the world goes through what he describes as an “era of global desperation”.
“We can only imagine how we would respond if this trend of desperate people trying to make their way to safety would increase five-10 fold. I think we would find ourselves in a hopeless situation and no Pacific solution, no PNG solution, no Malaysia solution will help us to deter organised criminal syndicates that engage in people smuggling or try to convince people that Australia will not accommodate them as what government is trying to sell now.”
Dr Muraviev also criticises the Coalition’s policy, which provides for a senior military officer to head a new multi-agency taskforce that would try to stop asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat.
“I think we’re just going in circles and trying to achieve a breakthrough by adopting half measures. The position also talked about using UAVs, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, as a cost affective form of protecting our, or surveilling and policing our maritime borders. I don’t think it’s a matter of who is going to have jurisdiction over the border protection. Although I think it should really be Customs and Border Protection Command, not the Navy.”