Papua New Guinea has doubled down on its continued detention of 53 men who were held on Manus Island by the Australian government, including some who have been approved for medical evacuation to Australia.
Officials from Australia’s home affairs department said on Monday that PNG was refusing to release a man who had been approved for a medical transfer, despite a number of requests from the Australian government. The man is currently being detained at the new Bomana Immigration Centre in Port Moresby.
"They have advised that they have their own medical provider, and [the man] has been assessed as being able to receive treatment in Papua New Guinea," department senior assistant secretary Alana Sullivan said.
Under Australia’s medevac law, the man must be transferred to Australia promptly. At least two other men detained in Bomana have been approved for transfer, according to doctors and lawyers working on medevac transfers.
Executive director of Refugee Legal David Manne told BuzzFeed News at least one of his clients in Bomana had been approved for an urgent transfer in relation to "acute medical issues".
"[He] is being prevented from departing Papua New Guinea to get the treatment that he so desperately needs," Manne said. "It continues to leave him in an extremely precarious and dangerous position."
On Wednesday, PNG's chief migration officer Solomon Kantha issued a defiant statement claiming the 53 men detained at Bomana are failed asylum seekers who are receiving adequate healthcare.
Kantha said detainees had access to a high standard of health and support services. He said primary health was provided on site and, if required, detainees could be taken off site for specialist care.
"In all circumstances, [the Immigration Citizenship Authority (ICA)] relies on the advice of medical professionals and treating doctors located here in Papua New Guinea," Kantha said. "ICA continues to facilitate medical evacuations where our health service provider advises that treatment cannot be delivered in Papua New Guinea."
In an implied rebuke of the Australian government, Kantha said that once an individual is detained in Bomana "they are expected to depart to a location where they have a lawful right of entry and stay".
People transferred from offshore detention to Australia for medical reasons do not have a right to stay in the country. Their transfer is supposed to be temporary and they are not issued visas.
Doctors also said on Monday they could not contact the men held at Bomana, including the few approved for transfer and 33 more whose applications are being considered.
Manne said he is dealing with the same problem. "It's critical that access to our clients be facilitated, and we would welcome any moves so that this can occur," he said.
The men’s phones were removed from them when they were detained earlier in August. "Personal mobile devices are a controlled item and are not permitted within the secure Immigration Centre environment," Kantha said.
He said detainees could access telephone communication and receive professional and social visits, but that priority was given to visits that support departure from PNG.
Kantha also said the Bomana detainees’ protection claims had been fully assessed. "These people were actively encouraged to depart PNG voluntarily and detention occurred only after all efforts were exhausted," he said.
But according to lawyer Greg Barns, that is incorrect. "The majority of those in Bomana have not made claims for asylum, and the reason they didn’t make claims is because they didn’t want to stay in PNG," Barns told BuzzFeed News.
Barns is working with local lawyers to seek compensation for the men, following a 2016 decision of the PNG Supreme Court that their earlier detention on Manus Island was unlawful. They also want travel documents for the men so they can leave PNG.
Barns suggested the current detention of the 53 men in Bomana was unlawful as well, and said his team would argue that in court.
Kantha's statement included a parting message to the detainees: "To these individuals, I encourage you to speak with ICA regarding the financial assistance package that is available to you, to start making arrangements to depart PNG and to move on with your life."
The Department of Home Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.