Claire Higgins, UNSWUS President Joe Biden’s deadline of August 31 to complete US evacuation efforts from Afghanistan is fast approaching. And after last week’s bombing at the Kabul airport, the security situation for Afghans trying to flee the country has become even more perilous.
Yet, thousands of Afghan nationals are still hoping for an escape.
Leaders of G7 nations have said they are pushing for the Taliban to grant “safe passage” for Afghans who need to leave after this week’s deadline passes. According to international refugee advocates, safe passage could include an “orderly departure program” for would-be refugees, like those previously run in Vietnam, Cuba and many other countries.
History shows these programs hold promise and pitfalls. But if combined with other measures — such as expanded resettlement efforts — a scheme for orderly departure by air or through safe land corridors could offer a vital additional way out.
How orderly departure worked in Cuba and Vietnam
Orderly departure is a unique practice. Ordinarily, a person at risk of persecution or other serious harm must first flee across an international border before trying to access protection under international refugee and human rights law.
In contrast, orderly departure involves some, if not all, of the immigration, medical and security checks to be conducted while applicants are still in their home country, otherwise known as “in country”.
Where do Afghanistan’s refugees go?
Would-be refugees may be transferred to a transit country if the paperwork cannot be finalised quickly enough, something the Biden administration already organised for the Afghan nationals evacuated before the August 31 deadline.
The United States has more experience with this set-up than most. Most recently, the Biden administration re-opened an Obama-era “in-country” program through which Central American children can apply to enter the US to access protection as refugees.
In fact, “in-country processing” has had a permanent place in the United States’ annual refugee admissions program for decades.
After President Fidel Castro encouraged an exodus of Cubans by boat to Florida in 1965, the US worked through the Swiss government to strike a deal with Castro’s regime to allow a massive airlift of Cubans to the US.
This involved primarily those with close relatives in the US, who travelled aboard two flights every weekday to Miami from 1965–73. Despite Havana’s tight restrictions on eligibility, some 300,000 Cubans were brought to the US in total.
In 1979, four years after the end of the United States’ war in Vietnam, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Vietnamese government signed a deal under which more than 30 countries participated in an orderly departure program out of Vietnam.
Foreign governments exchanged lists of names with the Vietnamese government to secure exit permits for people (a practice that would not be possible in Afghanistan at present). While the program was far from perfect — the US and Vietnam disagreed over eligibility criteria — it nonetheless allowed 650,000 Vietnamese to leave from 1979 to the mid-1990s.
Some countries, like Australia, opted to admit many Vietnamese on family reunion visas rather than humanitarian ones, demonstrating the flexibility with which foreign governments could approach a similar program today.
Yet, departures were not always orderly
History shows negotiating the safe and orderly departure of would-be refugees from home countries can take time to organise and get up and running. It can also take time to gain the confidence of people who might seek to leave.
Word-of-mouth and proof-of-concept build momentum. In Vietnam, the orderly departure program was secured by the UN refugee agency years after the communist forces took Saigon. Prospective applicants were initially cautious.
Many fled clandestinely by boat instead, telling US immigration officials in Malaysia they “were unaware” of how the program would work and “had seen no signs of its implementation”.
Even after the programs in both Vietnam and Cuba were set up, authorities in both countries still exercised some influence over the ability of people to leave.
This is why orderly departure programs today must operate in addition to other efforts by the international community to protect refugees who flee on their own.
Will the Taliban agree to it?
One major obstacle the orderly departure of would-be refugees is it requires the consent – tacit or otherwise – of authorities in the country of origin.
Scores of countries have signed a join statement calling for the Taliban to allow
the safe and orderly departure of foreign nationals and Afghans who wish to leave the country.
The Taliban is looking increasingly wary of allowing a longer-term evacuation to take place. Last week, a spokesman for the group declined to extend the deadline beyond August 31 and told the US to stop encouraging skilled Afghans to flee.
However, with the spotlight on Afghanistan’s new leaders, the former foreign ministers of 25 countries have argued there’s room to negotiate.
France and Britain are now reportedly set to propose a UN resolution calling for the establishment of a safe zone in Kabul that would “allow humanitarian operations to continue”, according to French President Emmanuel Macron.
The international community must use this opportunity to make good on promises to help former locally-engaged staff and their families, as well as women leaders, journalists, ethnic minorities, and and many others who might face persecution or other serious harm under the new regime.
Former interpreters who fled Afghanistan years earlier have reported their family members are now at risk by association, so it is essential the US and other governments cast a wide net in trying to get Afghans out.
If orderly departure arrangements can be established, however, this doesn’t mean governments can close off other pathways through which Afghans can seek protection, such as asylum procedures and expanded resettlement programs.
No matter how orderly or safe a program is, there are many reasons why some people will still need to flee across an international border to seek protection.
The need for foreign governments to protect their Afghan partners was known for years. As August 31 approaches, now is the time to double down, not to back out. Safe passage may still be possible.
Philippa Specker, UNSW; Angela Nickerson, UNSW, and Belinda Liddell, UNSWWhile the COVID-19 pandemic is weighing heavily on everyone’s mental health, people from refugee backgrounds may be uniquely affected, owing to their past traumatic experiences.
As survivors of war and persecution, many refugees have faced the threat of death because of their race, religion, political stance or social group. Some have endured conflict that involved restrictions on their movements, and major social and economic upheaval.
As a result, aspects of the current pandemic may be reminiscent of past traumatic experiences. And this overlap between past and present can have serious and far-reaching consequences for refugee mental health.
Our research, published today, found being reminded of past traumatic experiences was the strongest predictor of poor mental health among a group of refugees living in Australia.
Some key findings
During 2020, we surveyed 656 adult refugees living in Australia (predominantly in New South Wales and Victoria) about their experiences during COVID-19 and their mental health.
We then explored the relationships between particular COVID-related stressors and mental health outcomes — post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, health anxiety and daily functioning.
The most prevalent stressors were concern about contracting COVID-19, and concern about their family becoming infected, which 66.5% and 72.1% of participants reported respectively. These worries were associated with more severe PTSD symptoms and health anxiety symptoms.
Difficulties engaging socially due to having to stay at home were also common, and were linked to increased depression. Refugees already experience high levels of isolation and loneliness, so they’re likely to be particularly vulnerable on this front.
But the strongest predictor of all mental health outcomes was COVID-19 serving as a reminder of past trauma. Some 41.1% of participants said the pandemic reminded them of difficult or stressful experiences in their past, and these respondents reported increased PTSD, depression, health anxiety and poorer daily functioning.
This matches with our clinical experience
Our experience in providing psychological therapy to refugees with PTSD is consistent with these findings.
PTSD affects about one in three refugees and is a psychological condition that can follow traumatic experiences. A person with PTSD continuously experiences intrusive and distressing memories of past trauma.
The pandemic is having a profound yet invisible impact on many refugees because it is reminding them of their very worst memories.
For instance, we’ve heard from some clients that the sight of empty streets is prompting flashbacks of air raids. For others the sensation of wearing a face mask brings up memories of being gagged or hooded during imprisonment and torture.
Some have said lockdowns, quarantine, and a heightened police and army presence in their communities are distressing reminders of political terror or detention.
The interplay of past trauma and current circumstances may have serious effects on mental health. Further, this can put refugees at a greater risk of harm generally, with heightened fear creating a barrier to leaving the house for legitimate reasons such as buying food, exercising, getting tested for COVID-19 or accessing medical support.
What can we do?
The good news is there are things we can do to minimise the burden of the pandemic on refugee communities. Consultation and engagement with community leaders and experts are the best tools to ensure public health measures and messaging are culturally sensitive and trauma-informed.
For example, providing clear and inclusive information in multiple languages can be an effective way to dispel fears and misinformation. Unfortunately, translated health advice has been lagging.
During lockdowns, authorities need to carefully consider the use of police and army personnel, and transparently communicate their plans with the public.
They also need to emphasise there are safe pathways for accessing essential services, such as online medical consultations.
Finally, the psychological effects of this pandemic will likely be felt long after the final restrictions have been lifted. So continued funding of mental health services that support refugees will be essential.
There’s resilience too
Refugees enrich Australian society and have a long history of showing resilience in the face of social and economic upheaval. Having already overcome tremendous adversity in their home countries, refugees may be well-placed to navigate the challenges of living through a pandemic. We can all learn a lot from Australia’s refugee communities.
But it can be hard to stay resilient when your sense of safety is threatened. Now is a timely opportunity for government to reflect on the unintended implications of the pandemic on refugee mental health, and ensure steps are taken to prevent unnecessary suffering.
Philippa Specker, Scientia PhD scholar at the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Program, School of Psychology, UNSW; Angela Nickerson, Professor & Director, Refugee Trauma and Recovery Program, School of Psychology, UNSW, and Belinda Liddell, Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Program, School of Psychology, UNSW
Claire Higgins, UNSWJust hours after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Australia joined the international community in calling for the “safe and orderly departure of foreign nationals and Afghans who wish to leave the country”.
The scenes at Kabul airport yesterday were far from orderly, though US forces are now reportedly working to secure the airport so evacuation flights can resume.
If safe departure for Afghans can be coordinated, then it must be a transparent and flexible process — one that is additional to other pathways. And it must begin now.
Canada has already moved quickly, announcing it will resettle up to 20,000 women leaders, journalists and human rights activists who have fled Afghanistan, in addition to the evacuation of former locally-engaged staff.
A “path to protection”, as the Canadian government has called it, has been long overdue for many in Afghanistan who were associated with Australia or other foreign governments, such as interpreters and embassy staff.
Some have waited for years, stymied by overly strict eligibility criteria (a previous Canadian program was only open to those employed for 12 consecutive months).
Bureaucratic hurdles and long delays
Australia, Canada, the US and many European nations have decades of experience in offering special visa schemes for asylum seekers in circumstances such as this.
These processes allow people who are at risk of persecution or other serious harm – but are still in their home countries – to enter another country for the purpose of accessing protection under international refugee and human rights law.
The US, for example, settled more than half a million Vietnamese this way following the Vietnam War, as well as thousands of locally engaged staff from northern Iraq in the mid 1990s. In recent years, Australia has used this visa model – known as “in-country processing” – to settle Yazidi refugees from Iraq.
Australia’s “in-country” visa process has rarely been quick, but applications from some former employees in Afghanistan have dragged on despite dedicated lobbying from Australian Defence Force veterans.
Just days before the Taliban victory, for example, former employees of the Australian embassy in Kabul sent a letter to the Australian government, describing the persistent bureaucratic hurdles and long delays they have faced in applying for Australian visas.
And in recent years, some former employees of foreign governments were forced to flee Afghanistan rather than wait for formal protection visas, leaving them in limbo abroad and at risk of deportation home.
These processes should be transparent from the start. Would-be refugees need to know how the application process will work — and how long it will take — to decide if it is the best option for their circumstances.
Australia must expand its humanitarian uptake
The Australian government has said it will evacuate some Afghans from the country when “the situation allows”.
But any visa process must be flexible enough to include Afghan graduates of Australian universities who returned home – and have since received death threats – as well as family members of staff who have already left the country.
The Asia Pacific Network of Refugees and the Refugee Council of Australia have both called on the Australian government to offer asylum to others in Afghanistan, especially “women and children at risk as well as other human rights defenders in grave danger”.
This would mean expanding Australia’s resettlement program to admit more Afghans beyond the humanitarian intake of 13,750 people already planned for 2021-22. Canberra has done this before.
As Sitarah Mohammadi and Sajjad Askary, Melbourne-based deputy chairs within the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network and members of the Hazara ethic minority from Afghanistan, have recently argued, Australia offered 12,000 places for Syrians in 2015. They said,
A similar scheme can be established for the most persecuted and high risk groups, such as the Hazaras, who are already at risk of mass atrocities.
Helping Afghans who flee across borders
Of course, a dedicated safe and orderly departure program may depend on the tacit consent of the Taliban. In the current context, safe departure will be extremely difficult for applicants who are not already in Kabul, or who are on the run or in hiding from the Taliban.
To be meaningful, then, efforts to secure safe and orderly exit must never replace other avenues through which people fleeing Afghanistan may seek international protection.
This includes the right of individuals to make their own way out of Afghanistan to apply for protection in another country. And in cases when people have been rejected from the “in-country” application process, this must not prejudice their ability to apply for protection through other pathways.
Australia’s refugee program should also be opened to the thousands of Afghans currently stuck in Indonesia. Young people and families have been waiting there for years for a resettlement place abroad. Many are in desperate circumstances, as one family told the BBC:
We registered ourselves with the [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] in 2015. But we’ve not been contacted since then. We have been forgotten.
Some have even contemplated trying to reach Australia again by boat, according to a report today.
Permanent protection for Afghans already here
In Australia, the Asia Pacific Network of Refugees has also called on the government to protect Afghan nationals already living in this country.
This would include granting permanent protection to the more than 4,000 people who have already sought asylum in Australia and are living on temporary visas. This prevents refugees from reuniting with family members and forces them to live with the threat of deportation hanging over their lives.
According to Zaki Haidari, an ambassador for the Refugee Advice and Casework Service in Sydney and a temporary visa holder, the Taliban takeover proves
once again that it is not safe for us to go back and not safe for our families.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said today all Afghan citizens who were in Australia on a temporary basis would be supported by the government, adding
no Afghan visa holder will be asked to return to Afghanistan at this stage.
The words “at this stage” fall well short of Australia’s moral and legal obligations to Afghan refugees, and provide little comfort to temporary visa holders. With a range of options to expand protection for people at risk both within and outside Afghanistan, the Australian government must stop attaching qualifiers to its response, and start acting decisively and with humanity.
These people had not come “the right way”, Morrison told a news conference on Wednesday.
“I want to be very clear about that. I want to send a very clear message to people smugglers in the region that nothing’s changed.
“I will not give you a product to sell and take advantage of people’s misery. My government won’t do it. We never have and we never will.”
Government sources say there are more than 4500 Afghans in Australia on temporary protection visas, almost all of whom arrived by boat.
Although Morrison is adamant they will not get permanent residency, the government is making it clear there will be no attempt to return them to Afghanistan as things stand.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese is among those who have called for them to be granted permanent residence.
The government announced on Wednesday an initial 3,000 humanitarian places would be allocated to Afghan nationals within Australia’s 13,750 annual program which runs over a financial year.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the government would give Afghan nationals “first priority” within the offshore humanitarian program. The priorities would be family members of Australians, and those facing persecution including women and girls, the Hazara, and other vulnerable groups.
Some 8,500 Afghans have been resettled in Australia since 2013 under the humanitarian program.
Hawke said the government anticipated the initial allocation would increase further over the course of the year.
Morrison stressed: “We will only be resettling people through our official humanitarian program going through official channels.
“We will not be allowing people to enter Australia illegally, even at this time.
“Our policy has not changed. We will be supporting Afghans who have legitimate claims through our official and legitimate processes. We will not be providing that pathway to those who would seek to come any other way. That is a very important message. The government’s policy has not changed, will not change.”
As the government scrambles to evacuate people who assisted Australian forces in Afghanistan, Australia’s first evacuation flight from Kabul took only 26 people. Morrison said they included Australian citizens, Afghan nationals with visas, and one foreign official who had been working with an international agency.
The Afghans being brought to Australia in the evacuation are not included in the 3000.
Morrison emphasised the difficulty of assessing those Afghans seeking to come to Australia on the grounds of having helped Australian forces.
“They may have worked for us four years ago or five years ago. And we knew where they were then.
“And we may not have heard from them for a very long time. And we don’t know what they’ve been doing in that intervening period in what has been a very unstable situation.
“So it isn’t just a matter of people coming along and presenting, you know, a payslip from the Australian government saying, ‘I used to work for you’. I wish it were that simple.”
The Refugee Council of Australia said in a statement: “Permanent protection is needed for the 4300 Afghans on temporary protection visas, recognising that members of this group are unlikely to be able to return in safety for many years to come and need the assurance that they can continue to live in Australia without the constant fear of forced return.”
Tadgh McMahon, Flinders University and Shanthi Robertson, Western Sydney UniversityWith COVID numbers surging in Sydney’s multicultural western suburbs, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard speculated that migrant and refugee communities in the region “haven’t built up trust in government”, which might make them reluctant to engage with health authorities.
And yesterday, Hazzard made another oblique reference to residents in western Sydney by saying,
There are other communities and people from other backgrounds who don’t seem to think that it is necessary to comply with the law and who don’t really give great consideration to what they do in terms of its impact on the rest of the community.
Concerns about a lack of trust among migrants and refugees in institutions in Sydney’s west — or their alleged disregard for rules — mirror similar commentary by authorities in Melbourne during COVID outbreaks last year.
Our recent research among refugees in NSW shows these concerns about trust in government are unfounded, particularly among recently arrived refugees.
Our 2019 and 2020 surveys reveal these people, in fact, have very high levels of trust in Australian institutions and a high level of commitment to fulfil their social and civic responsibilities.
What our research reveals
The study, led by Settlement Services International (SSI) and researchers at Western Sydney University, explored refugees’ sense of participation and belonging in Australian society.
We surveyed 418 refugees in their preferred languages, reaching a diversity of backgrounds. All refugees had permanent residency, and those in our 2020 survey had lived in Australia for an average of 24 months.
In the 2020 survey, we found our respondents had very high levels of trust in the government (86% responding “a lot”) and the police (84% “a lot”), with no noticeable difference between women and men.
Trust in the media, however, was considerably lower (39% trusting the media “a lot” and 41% “some”), but still comparable to the general Australian population.
The lowest trust was expressed for people in the wider Australian community, with just 24% saying they trusted these people “a lot”, 45% saying “some” and 10% saying “not at all”. This was comparable to findings from a long-term study of refugees in Australia.
One typical resident in Sydney’s west
Muneera, who came to Australia from Iraq, lives in Sydney’s west with her family and is typical of the refugees we surveyed. Muneera was supported by SSI when she arrived in March 2019 through the Australian government’s humanitarian settlement program.
While she was not part of the research, she was happy to share her story of dealing with COVID-19 during the current lockdown.
With limited English, Muneera gets COVID-19 information from Arabic community social media groups and mainstream TV news. She also relies on her sister, who speaks English very well, for regular updates on public health restrictions.
Like many other families in lockdown, some of her children have lost work and her son struggles with high school from home without a laptop. Yet, Muneera and her family are committed to staying home and understand the need to stay informed and comply with restrictions.
Why community support is so vital
In our survey, we found refugees in New South Wales were strongly motivated to fulfil their social and civic responsibilities, including obeying the law, being self-sufficient, treating others with respect and helping others. In fact, these sentiments were shared nearly universally among our respondents.
They also reported knowing how to get help and access essential services, including how to find out about government services (69% “know very well/fairly well”) and, importantly, what to do in an emergency (77% “know very well/fairly well”). They also knew how to get help from the police (78% “know very well/fairly well”).
When it came to helping others in the community, rates of volunteering among refugees in our survey dipped in 2020 (48%) compared to 2019 (60%), but were still on par with rates of volunteering (49%) in the wider Australian community during the pandemic.
All respondents in this survey had Australian permanent residency, a key factor in enabling their settlement and their access to services.
Refugees in our study also felt welcome in Australia, part of the Australian community and supported by range of networks, including their ethnic and religious communities and other groups. At this early stage of settlement, they found it relatively easy to make friends in Australia, talk to their neighbours and maintain mixed friendships networks.
In western Sydney and other parts of Australia with high cultural diversity, there are multiple challenges in containing COVID-19, including rapidly changing public health advice and the need for accurate information in community languages.
However, the premise that refugees have low levels of trust in institutions or are disinclined to follow rules is not supported by our research.
Rather than labelling diverse communities as lacking in trust, their existing social capital and breadth of their community relationships and networks can be a critical resource in the battle to contain COVID-19, as Muneera’s example shows.
Starting from a position of trust, the challenge becomes how to activate and effectively resource the span of organisations and networks that refugees and migrants engage with in their daily lives.
This should be coupled with clear and consistent messaging in community languages delivered through a variety of channels (including digital) and formats (including video). Peer-to-peer engagement from community members and trusted organisations can be incredibly effective to support behaviour change and maintain health and safety.
Targeted mental health promotion and financial assistance are also key to ensuring families like Muneera’s have the support they need during the pandemic.
The authors’ research on newly arrived refugees will be discussed in a moderated online panel discussion to be held on September 9 from 12:30-2pm (AEST). Registration is free, but essential.
Tadgh McMahon, Adjunct Lecturer, College of Medicine and Public Health, Flinders University and Shanthi Robertson, Associate Professor, Institute for Culture and Society & School of Humanities and Communication Arts, Western Sydney University
Claire Loughnan, University of Melbourne; Anthea Vogl, University of Technology Sydney; Caroline Fleay, Curtin University; Philomena Murray, University of Melbourne, and Sara Dehm, University of Technology Sydney
Pressure is growing to release people from immigration detention, with lawyers from Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre mounting a court case on behalf of a refugee seeking protection from COVID-19. They argue the federal government has a duty of care to refugees, which cannot be met in immigration detention due to the crowded conditions there.
This test case illustrates the urgency of the need to release people from detention.
The forgotten people
The social distancing measures adopted across Australia appear to be halting the spread of the coronavirus in the general community. But the Australian government continues to fail to provide proper protections for many groups who are most at risk. They include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote communities, people in prisons and youth detention centres, and those who are forced to remain in sites of immigration detention.
This leaves them, and the rest of us, at serious risk of infection.
The British Home Office has begun releasing people from immigration detention to stem a potential escalation of their public health crisis. Some 400 people have been released to date.
In the US, rates of infection in immigration and prison sites have dramatically increased in recent weeks. One prison in Ohio reported 73% of inmates have tested positive to coronavirus.
To stall the spread of infection, several US courts have ordered the release from immigration prisons of people who are at particular risk of COVID-19 infection. One judge found US immigration officials had:
likely exhibited callous indifference to the safety and well-being of the [detained immigrants at risk]. The evidence suggests system-wide inaction that goes beyond a mere ‘difference of medical opinion or negligence’.
The Australian government can no longer ignore calls throughout Australia to take similar action to protect people in detention and the broader community. In February this year, the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report on monitoring places of detention had already flagged the need for stronger protections for people who have been deprived of their liberty.
The situation in Singapore shows what can happen when measures are not taken to protect everyone. The pandemic escalated there through its rapid spread in migrant worker dormitories. They had been overlooked in Singapore’s “gold standard” response to COVID-19.
Public health experts around the world, including the World Health Organisation, have established that confined sites like detention centres provide ideal conditions for infections to spread rapidly.
The impossibility of social distancing in detention
About 1,400 people are in immigration detention in Australia. This includes Alternative Places of Detention (APODs), where many refugees have been detained for prolonged periods, including in confined hotel settings.
People held in the crowded detention centres and APODs in Australia have highlighted the impossibility of social distancing. They are using daily protests and social media to call for their urgent release into safe accommodation.
There is also widespread concern in the Australian community about the lack of protection being provided to people in immigration detention. Over 1,000 academics, doctors and health professionals signed an open letter, initiated by Academics for Refugees, Doctors for Refugees and Librarians for Refugees, calling for the release of people from onshore and offshore immigration detention.
What are the risks?
Transmission of COVID-19 occurs mainly through respiratory droplets, as well as through contact with skin and other surfaces. It is highly contagious and spreads quickly in closed spaces.
Reports received from inside immigration detention sites indicate staff have adopted limited or no protective measures. Those detained have limited or no access to hand sanitiser.
There are serious risks due to overcrowding and people are often transferred from one immigration detention centre to another. These factors magnify the risks and are in conflict with government guidelines to control the virus.
These concerns also apply to APODs such as hotels. Here refugees are detained in small, confined spaces with limited or no ventilation. These conditions are even more likely to promote the spread of viruses and disease.
COVID-19 infection is a particular threat for those whose health is already compromised or who have underlying medical conditions, as they are at higher risk of developing serious complications. This includes people detained in Australia who have compromised immune systems as a result of inadequate access to medical care over a number of years.
There are also concerns for the health of those held in offshore detention. Refugees and asylum seekers currently in Nauru and Papua New Guinea are particularly vulnerable because of their living arrangements, the limits on their ability to take proactive preventive measures to protect their own health, their status as non-citizens, and their limited access to medical care.
Recent reports indicate a spike in infections in Papua New Guinea. Should an outbreak occur that is beyond the capacity of the country to respond, the impact for refugees living there would be disastrous.
As most detainees have varying contact with people outside detention, the risk extends to the broader community. Failure to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 among detainees will not only expose these groups to unacceptable risk, it will inevitably have a detrimental impact on the community at large.
What action is urgently required from the government?
Immediate government action is required to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 among people forced to remain in immigration detention.
These measures must include:
immediately using alternatives to detention to provide those who are in immigration detention with appropriate accommodation in the community
ensuring those who remain in detention are informed in a language they understand about the risks of COVID-19, the availability of testing and measures they can take to prevent the spread of infection
enforcing best-practice sanitation measures and social distancing in immigration detention to maintain the health and safety of detainees and staff
applying enhanced testing procedures in places of immigration detention and ensuring all staff are appropriately screened – similar procedures should apply for Nauru and PNG
ensuring all people on bridging visas have access to appropriate medical care that matches Australian community standards
ensuring asylum seekers and refugees with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 in Nauru and PNG are assessed and treated in accordance with Australian standards. If necessary, they should be transported to Australia for medical care.
They need the government’s protection as much as the rest of us.
We thank Mary Anne Kenny, Madeline Gleeson and Angeline Ferdinand for their advice.
Claire Loughnan, Lecturer, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne; Anthea Vogl, Senior lecturer, University of Technology Sydney; Caroline Fleay, Associate Professor, Curtin University; Philomena Murray, Professor, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne, and Sara Dehm, Lecturer, University of Technology Sydney
After much negotiation, the government has secured the repeal of the medical evacuation law – known as “medevac” – after making a secret deal with Senate cross-bencher Jacqui Lambie.
So what does this mean for those held in offshore detention?
Understanding the numbers
The number of refugees and asylum seekers in Nauru and Manus Island peaked at 2,450 in April 2014 (1,273 on Manus and 1,177 on Nauru) and has been dropping ever since. As of this week, about 466 asylum-seekers and refugees remain offshore – 208 on Papua New Guinea and 258 on Nauru.
Of the nearly 2,000 who are no longer in offshore detention, 632 have been transferred to the United States, 17 died in detention, mainly due to suicide, several hundred have been deported after their claims had been rejected, or after returning “voluntarily” with financial assistance from the Australian government. Of these returnees, 33 have been reported dead.
In addition, the majority of those who are no longer on Nauru and PNG have been transferred to Australia for medical treatment. Prior to the Medevac law, 1,246 people had been transferred to Australia for medical reasons, including accompanying family. “Less than a handful” of these were returned to Nauru or PNG. The most recent return was on April 15 2018.
The number of medical transfers jumped dramatically from 2017-18, when there were 35 transfers, to 461 from July 2018 to the passing of the medevac law in February 2019. Since then, a further 288 were transferred under the earlier system of approvals.
According to Senates Estimates, between March 2 2019 when Medevac became law, and October 21 2019, 135 refugees and asylum seekers from Nauru and PNG have been transferred for emergency medical treatment under this process.
Why has there been such a focus on medevac?
The primary failure of the policy of removing asylum seekers to Nauru and PNG for processing has been the inability to find permanent resettlement options for those who are found to be refugees under the UN Convention.
Having ruled out resettlement in Australia, the government has scrambled to find other countries to take in the asylum seekers. In 2016, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was fortunate to find President Barack Obama open to a resettlement arrangement, which he subsequently convinced Donald Trump to honour.
But this has been the only option on the table. There was an aborted deal with Cambodia, and a small number have been resettled in Canada through private sponsorship. The government inexplicably refused an offer from New Zealand to resettle 150 refugees each year, concerned they could then enter Australia via New Zealand.
With limited prospects for resettlement, and the mental health of those on Nauru and PNG always vulnerable and quickly deteriorating, medical transfers have been an important strategy. The increasing number of people transferred for medical reasons is a result of the escalating medical emergency.
Prior to medevac, transfers were at the discretion of the minister. When the minister refused a medical transfer to Australia, people were forced to challenge the exercise of the minister’s discretion in the courts.
After protracted legal actions, Australian courts routinely ordered the minister to transfer people for urgent medical treatment to fulfil Australia’s duty of care to people in offshore places. Medevac replaced this cumbersome process with a medical assessment by two doctors that was reviewed by an independent health advice panel. The minister maintained the power to refuse a transfer on security grounds.
Now that the medevac law has been repealed, people will once again rely on ministerial discretion for a medical transfer. One would expect that most, if not all, of those remaining on Nauru and PNG will eventually make an application for a transfer. This is because spending up to six years in these places with limited facilities, and an indefinite timeframe for their detention, will eventually undermine the mental health of even the most robust of those who remain.
Recent figures released by the Department of Home Affairs suggest there are currently 418 applications for a transfer out of the remaining 466 people remaining offshore.
The tragedy is that these applications will not be assessed on purely medical grounds, and are likely to be long and protracted.
Repeal of medevac and the end game for offshore detention
The government’s repeal of the medevac law will do little more than delay transfers of the last remaining refugees held offshore. We may never know the conversations between the government and Jacqui Lambie, but perhaps she was persuaded that there was value in the government maintaining its uncompromising line on asylum seekers arriving by boat, while medical transfers continue unabated.
The majority of those now in Australia as a result of a medical transfer live in alternative places of detention while they access medical treatment. In time, the only realistic option is to grant these people a visa to stay in Australia. This should happen quietly, while the government maintains its firm but unrealistic line of no one ever being resettled in Australia.
These people can then become part of the Australian community, adults can find work, children can go to school. If this happens, there will be no resumption of boats arriving from Indonesia, and we can be rid of the blight of offshore detention.