Papua New Guinea is refusing to release a sick asylum-seeker held in offshore detention to Australia for medical care, despite numerous requests from the government.
The man is one of 53 asylum-seekers who were detained on Manus Island by the Australian government and then taken to the Bomana Immigration Centre in Port Moresby earlier this month.
Officials from the Department of Home Affairs confirmed the standoff on Monday, saying the man had been approved for transfer under Australia’s medevac law before he was moved to Bomana.
“We have requested transfer from Papua New Guinea a number of times and they have refused to approve the transfer to Australia,” department senior assistant secretary Alana Sullivan told a parliamentary committee.
“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.”
Greens senator Nick McKim clarified: “But in fact either the minister or the [Independent Health Advice Panel] has determined that’s not the case?”
“That is correct,” replied Sullivan.
The men taken to Bomana, a newly opened detention centre to which the Australian government contributed $20 million, had their phones removed. Doctors and lawyers told the committee on Monday they were not able to contact their patients and clients held there.
The detainees are men who sought asylum in Australia by boat and were sent to Manus Island in 2013. They have either had refugee claims rejected or never applied for asylum in Papua New Guinea at all.
Dr Sara Townend, the Sydney doctor who established and oversees the medevac transfer application process, said that a number of people who had either been approved or were being considered for a medical transfer were no longer contactable.
“Their phones are not available to them. We’ve not been able to access any phone number to speak centrally, to have approved communication with the individuals,” Townend said. “So we’ve had no contact with them.”
As well as the man who was approved for transfer under the medevac law before moving to Bomana, at least two others had been approved since being held there, the committee heard.
Another 33 have applications on foot that Townend said doctors would be able to progress because they already had substantial information and prior telehealth assessments.
“A large number of those I would estimate will have valid claims to put to the minister,” she said, adding that doctors were “persisting in trying” to contact the men.
In a separate session, Refugee Legal executive director David Manne told the committee he had at least one client who was held in Bomana and had been approved for evacuation.
“It’s been extremely difficult to make any proper contact since [his detention] and it’s a matter of profound concern,” he said.
“They’re in critical need of evacuation, critical medical need, and for some weeks now have not been able to be brought to Australia,” he said.
His detention is “not only putting him in an extremely dangerous situation in terms of his medial needs, but it’s also frustrating the ability to make good the decision by the Australian government, through the minister, for evacuation,” Manne said.
The department said its advice from Papua New Guinea was that it its Immigration and Citizenship Authority would take requests for access to individuals held in Bomana on a case-by-case basis.
Department secretary Mike Pezzullo said the department would look into whether there were any “logjams” in communicating with clients and patients.
Home Affairs general council Pip De Veau told the committee the standoff highlighted the department’s point, made in its submission arguing for medevac’s repeal, that the law undermined the sovereignty of Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
BuzzFeed News has contacted Papua New Guinea’s Immigration and Citizenship Authority for comment.