Send them to Taiwan: Turnbull government's secret refugee deal revealed
Advertisement

Send them to Taiwan: Turnbull government's secret refugee deal revealed

The Turnbull government has signed a deal to send refugees on Nauru who need urgent medical care to Taiwan, in an undisclosed arrangement aimed at stopping them from applying to stay in Australia after being treated in local hospitals.

Fairfax Media can reveal Australia signed a memorandum of understanding with Taiwan - which is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention - in September last year that has so far seen about five refugees flown 5500 kilometres to the capital Taipei for high-level care.

Refugees on Nauru who need urgent medical treatment are being sent to Taipei in Taiwan instead of Australia.

Refugees on Nauru who need urgent medical treatment are being sent to Taipei in Taiwan instead of Australia.

Photo: Supplied

The previously undisclosed deal has prompted lawyers to warn that medical care is being dictated by the political imperative of avoiding having refugees on Nauru reach Australia, where they can access its court system.

In recent months, a 55-year-old Iranian woman in need of critical heart surgery has been among the people treated in Taiwan and then returned to Nauru. A 63-year-old Afghan man who is reportedly dying of lung cancer is refusing to move to Taiwan for palliative care, demanding instead to come to Australia.

But this week the Federal Court accepted a 30-year-old pregnant Somali woman’s argument that she needed an Australian hospital’s higher standard of care rather than a Taiwanese facility. The woman needs an abortion but faces complications because she suffered female genital mutilation as a young woman .

Advertisement

A spokeswoman for the Department of Home Affairs confirmed the agreement with Taiwan was signed in September and that “several individuals have already received medical treatment in Taiwan and returned to Nauru”.

“The government has been clear that people subject to regional processing arrangements will not be settled in Australia,” she said. “Medical transfer is not a pathway to settlement in Australia.”

The government has never announced the memorandum of understanding and refused to release it on Friday.

More than 400 refugees and asylum-seekers have been flown to Australia for treatment from Nauru and Manus Island since the former Labor government reinstated offshore processing.

The vast majority have then been able to stay by preparing applications for High Court injunctions against their return. While the court has yet to hear a case, the government has generally put medical transferees who have sought legal help to stay after their treatment on bridging visas and undertaken not to send them back to Nauru.

Taiwan is generally regarded as having a good quality medical system. The Home Affairs Department spokeswoman said it was “consistently ranked as having some of the best hospitals and medical technology in the world”.

It has long provided aid and humanitarian assistance to Nauru, which is one of the few countries that recognises Taiwan as an independent nation rather than as part of China.

But Taiwan also is not a United Nations member state and therefore not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, meaning it is not automatically bound to hear asylum applications. It does not have well-defined refugee laws.

Refugee lawyer David Manne said the policy showed “the extreme lengths to which the government will resort to avoid its basic obligations to these people”.

Loading

“The fundamental concern must be the person’s need for medical treatment. Once again, we see the absurd spectacle of the Australian government searching the globe to hive off its basic obligations ... to properly care for people subject to its policies which inflict such devastating harm.”

Lawyer George Newhouse of the National Justice Project - which handled the case involving the pregnant Somali woman - said the government was “sending a clear message to asylum-seekers around the world, that if they attempt to come to Australia by boat, they will be denied adequate medical care and our government will take all steps, including exposing them to harm, to ensure that they never reach the Australian mainland”.

Australia is understood to have sought assistance from more countries or medical transfers. But Taiwan is the only one that has signed a deal with the Turnbull government.

Some patients have previously also been transferred to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea.

Tony Bartone, the federal president of the Australian Medical Association, said the doctors group would “not have an issue with” the policy provided that clinical oversight by contractor International Health and Medical Services - which provides medical care to refugees and asylum-seekers on Nauru - was the sole determinant of how people were treated.

Labor immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann blasted Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton over secrecy around such agreements and backed medical transfers, but did not expressly criticise transfers to third countries such as Taiwan.

David Wroe is the defence and national security correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House