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UNHCR Appeals for Urgent Medical Intervention by Australia

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UNHCR Appeals for Urgent Medical Intervention by Australia

29 November 2018

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, calls for immediate action by the Parliament of Australia to address the continuing medical crisis under “offshore processing” arrangements in Papua New Guinea and Nauru today. As the healthcare situation of refugees and asylum-seekers continues to worsen, UNHCR supports the Migration Amendment (Urgent Medical Treatment) Bill 2018, to be introduced to the House of Representatives on Monday, 3 December 2018.

Care of the sick and wounded without distinction is a key tenet of medical ethics and practice around the world, and a fundamental principle of International Law. Australia’s so-called “offshore processing” policy continues to exacerbate the dire health condition of vulnerable men, women and children alike. Too many, from children not yet of school age to their elderly grandparents, are now critically unwell. This deterioration has been reflected in a growing sense of despair, resulting in increasing self-harm and suicide attempts in both Papua New Guinea and Nauru in recent months. Following years in held detention, and continuing uncertainty and hopelessness after more than five years, the acute needs of refugees and asylum-seekers are in no way comparable to those of the respective local populations.

Australian citizens and their representatives of all political persuasions have raised growing concerns as doctors and independent medical experts have stressed an increasing and imminent risk to human life and well-being. The issue is not a matter of politics, but of basic human treatment and decency. Serious harm to refugees and asylum-seekers who remain the responsibility of Australia is both foreseeable and preventable. Australia has a duty to act on impartial medical evidence as a matter of humanitarian imperative.

While the welcome relocation of some 1,250 refugees to the United States of America continues, more urgent action must be taken for those who medically require it. The draft bill, focused exclusively on medical needs and action on a case-by-case basis, ensures the fundamental healthcare that is the right of every human being. UNHCR appeals to all parliamentarians to support it.


UNHCR has closely monitored the situation of refugees and asylum-seekers transferred to Papua New Guinea and Nauru since 2013, including through the engagement of expert medical consultants [1]. The overwhelming majority of asylum seekers and refugees in Papua New Guinea and Nauru had no pre-existing psychiatric disorder even though a considerable proportion had been exposed to trauma [2].

Circumstances and conditions for refugees under Australia’s “offshore processing” policy have had severely negative impacts on health, and particularly mental health. During 2016, UNHCR medical experts found cumulative rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD among refugees forcibly transferred to Papua New Guinea and Nauru to be the highest recorded in the medical literature to date at over 80% in both locations [3]. The well-being of refugees has been noted by various medical experts to have further deteriorated since that time. UNHCR has repeatedly urged adequate medical care, including transfer procedures, and warned of dire consequences of inaction [4].

Approximately 3,000 refugees and asylum-seekers have been forcibly transferred by Australia to so-called “offshore processing” facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru since the introduction of the current policy in 2013. Of these, some 600 remain in Nauru and 570 in Papua New Guinea.

Migration Amendment (Urgent Medical Treatment) Bill 2018 available here


Catherine Stubberfield, +61 424 545 569, [email protected]

[1] See United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee: Serious allegations of abuse, self-harm and neglect of asylum seekers in relation to the Nauru Regional Processing Centre, and any like allegations in relation to the Manus Regional Processing Centre 2016, available at

[2] Ibid, p. 9.

[3] Ibid, pp. 10-13.

[4] See, inter alia, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNHCR urges Australia to evacuate off-shore facilities as health situation deteriorates, 12 October 2018, available at and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNHCR appeals to Australia to act and save lives at immediate risk, 23 October 2018, available at