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AUSTRALIA: Asylum seekers denied the right to health

The right to health is a fundamental human right, however thousands of asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their homelands and seeking asylum in Australia are denied the right to adequate medical facilities by the Australian Government. Under Australia¡¦s harsh refugee policy, thousands of asylum seekers are forced to live in the community on a Bridging Visa E (BVE) whilst they await the outcome of their Protection Visa Application, a visa that requires the determination of the refugee status of the applicant under section 36 of the Migration Act 1958. Bridging Visa E¡¦s deny asylum seekers the right to work, free or subsidised Government-sponsored medical services (Medicare), and access to income. As a result of this, when an asylum seekers falls ill, they have neither the financial means to seek medical treatment or access to the country¡¦s Medicare services. This is resulting in many asylum seekers, who are suffering from health related illnesses, being forced to suffer in silence.

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ASIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION - URGENT APPEALS PROGRAMME

11 May 2006
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HA-05-2006: AUSTRALIA: Asylum seekers denied the right to health

AUSTRALIA: Denial of right to health; inhumane treatment of asylum seekers; unjust and unlawful immigration regulations for asylum seekers
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Dear friends,

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information from The Asylum Seeker Project (http://asp.hothammission.org.au/), in Melbourne, Australia, detailing the plight of several asylum seekers and the denial of their right to health, as a result of the Australian Government¡¦s current refugee policy.

The right to health is a fundamental human right, however thousands of asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their homelands and seeking asylum in Australia are denied the right to adequate medical facilities by the Australian Government. Under Australia¡¦s harsh refugee policy, thousands of asylum seekers are forced to live in the community on a Bridging Visa E (BVE) whilst they await the outcome of their Protection Visa Application, a visa that requires the determination of the refugee status of the applicant under section 36 of the Migration Act 1958. Bridging Visa E¡¦s deny asylum seekers the right to work, free or subsidised Government-sponsored medical services (Medicare), and access to income. As a result of this, when an asylum seekers falls ill, they have neither the financial means to seek medical treatment or access to the country¡¦s Medicare services.  This is resulting in many asylum seekers, who are suffering from health related illnesses, being forced to suffer in silence.

The Asylum Seeker Project alone has been presented with many cases of asylum seekers, including children, who have been unable to access proper medical facilities following an injury or illness. Four such cases are mentioned below. All names have been withheld.

Urgent Appeals Desk - Hunger Alert
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)

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DETAILED INFORMATION:

Case 1:

A paramedic was recently called to a home in Melbourne to attend to a young boy who had had a seizure. He was met at the front of the house by a very anxious mother, in tears and urging the paramedic to hurry. The paramedic found the boy lying on the bed in his room and was in what is called the ¡§post ictal¡¨ phase of a seizure, which means that he was very confused, could not remember what had happened to him, and was largely unaware of his surroundings. This was the first time the boy had ever had a seizure and his family were beside themselves with worry.

The paramedic accessed the boy and commenced treating him. He also tried to assure the family that the crisis had probably passed for now and that their son was now following the common post seizure pattern. At the same time, the paramedic informed the family that they would need to take the boy to hospital to have the cause of his seizure investigated and to treat him if he was to have another.

At this point the boy¡¦s mother informed the paramedic that she could not take her son to hospital because her family was asylum seekers, they were on BVE's and therefore did not have access to Medicare. The mother's crying became uncontrollable as she worried for the future health of her son.

An older couple, who were present at the house at the time, stepped forward and explained that they were from a local church group and the house was owned by the church and made available to asylum seekers. Thankfully, and by sheer luck, the paramedic also had knowledge of the plight of asylum seekers and the regulations of the BVE, given his involvement with a local asylum seekers action group. The paramedic then contacted a friend who had a better understanding of how asylum seekers could access medical care. The friend informed him that the state Minister for Health had made a determination that people on BVE¡¦s should not be charged when attending the emergency department of Victorian state hospitals.

This information was then passed onto the family, who were enormously relieved. Thankfully, they were able to take their son to hospital based on the information the paramedic gave them.

Though the boy finally received medical treatment, the issue here is that it was only by chance that this particular paramedic had attended to the boy. The paramedic later stated that most of his colleagues would have been confused by the conditions of the BVE and may well have left the boy at home, and left the family in their state of extreme anxiety.

The paramedic also stated that he believed that to force people to live under such conditions of ambiguity with regard to emergency medical treatment is barbaric in a supposedly civilized country like Australia, and cruel in the extreme. No one, he said, should have to watch their child have a seizure and then feel that they are obliged to refuse him appropriate medical care because of visa restrictions.  This, he contintued, is a heartless law and it should be changed.

Case 2:

An elderly woman from Asia, seeking asylum in Australia, lodged her first humanitarian application close to four years ago. After a one and a half year wait, the application was rejected. She lodged another humanitarian application in 2004, which was again refused shortly afterwards.

However, in 2004 a doctor assessed the woman and concluded that she was not fit to travel and noted that her cardiac problems may worsen on a flight. This was following a pacemaker (heart machine) having been fitted some years back. Furthermore, the woman was diagnosed as having a severe cardiac condition requiring close medical supervision. She also has a left ventricular dysfunction, atrial arythmia, hypertension and asthma and is on medication for all of the above conditions.

Despite the woman¡¦s extremely fragile state, her age and the doctor¡¦s declaration that she is unfit to fly, the Minister¡¦s office concluded that she could receive adequate medical treatment in her own country.

Case 3:

An elderly woman from Eastern Europe, currently in Australia on a BVE, has been informed that she is unfit to travel owing to her seriously poor health. The woman has complex and extensive medical concerns including a history of strokes and diabetes. She has previously required long term hospitalisation and has had two heart attacks.

A hospital has assessed her and has stated that she requires a high level of care and has recommended that she be placed in a residential nursing home. The same hospital has also stated that they are prepared to make all necessary arrangements if the applicant is granted Medicare. The sad irony is, however, that as an asylum seeker on a BVE, the woman is not entitled to Medicare assistance. As a result, and despite needing full and professional medical treatment, the woman is currently being cared for by her daughter. This has of course placed severe financial and emotional pressure on both the woman and her daughter.

It seems unlikely that she will ever be fit enough to leave Australia. Yet at the same time, as she continues to seek asylum in Australia, she is being denied the medical treatment that she requires. Doctors believe that there is every possibility that this woman might die while still on the BVE and while still waiting to receive the medical treatment that she needs.

Case 4:

A young boy from a Middle Eastern family, currently seeking shelter in Melbourne, became extremely ill with a high fever late one night last year. Accordingly, he was taken to the hospital by his parents. When they arrived at the emergency ward, however, they were informed that since they were not entitled to Medicare benefits, they would have to pay AUD150 (HKD900) there and then if they wanted their son to be seen to by a doctor. The family could not afford to pay this amount, as they had no rights to work and were not entitled to any government financial assistance. As a result of this, the boy and his family returned home without any medical treatment having been given.

Soon after this, the family¡¦s daughter badly burnt her leg. Knowing that they did not have the money to have her treated at hospital, the parents instead applied toothpaste to the burn and wrapped her leg in a bandage. The next day they took the girl to see a local doctor who was horrified by the state of her leg and had to slowly peel the bandage off to be able to treat it properly. This was incredibly painful for the girl and she was in grave danger of contracting an infection in the burn wound.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

According to the Australian Department of Immigration¡¦s own statistics at least one third of the 6700 asylum seekers seeking asylum in the community are on BVE visas.
 
Asylum Seekers are forced into a life of poverty and left destitute, isolated and made to rely on charity for their survival. They face issues related to lack of food and inaccess to health facilities and these are only eased with the assistance of (mainly) non ¡V government funded NGO¡¦s. Many asylum seekers on these visas are families and these policies apply equally to children. This policy breaches Australia¡¦s obligations as a signatory to the Refugee Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The policy of placing certain asylum seekers on BVE¡¦s seeks simply to act as a deterrent and a punishment to people who seek asylum onshore in Australia.
 
Under the Migration Regulations of 1994, asylum seekers find themselves on Bridging Visa E¡¦s for one of the following reasons:

  • They have taken longer than 45 days to seek asylum upon arrival in Australia
  • They have sought the humanitarian intervention of the Minister for Immigration
  • They have been released from detention onto a bridging visa whilst their claim is being considered

The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) places asylum seekers on Bridging Visa E¡¦s for these reasons despite the fact that the experiences of NGO¡¦s are:

  • That asylum seekers often do not apply within 45 days of arrival due to factors such as language barriers, isolation and poverty
  • That asylum seekers who seek the intervention of the Minister often do so because of issues to do with the welfare of their children or mental or physical issues
  • Asylum seekers released from detention often do so with serious physical and mental health issues as a result of being in detention

Bridging Visa E's have a devastating impact on the well-being of asylum seekers. The following problems are found to be some of the consequences suffered by asylum seekers on Bridging Visa E's:

  • Children presenting to the health service with diseases often found only in developing countries such as rickets, malnutrition and anemia due to poor diet or lack of food
  • Families seeking help from charity organisations because they are homeless and without access to any food
  • Pregnant women into the 7th or 8th month of their pregnancy with no access to medical care or having premature births or underweight babies due to poor health 
  • Families being isolated and not linked to any NGO¡¦s  because they have no income to access public transport 
  • Families being unable to access legal advice and assistance to apply for asylum within the 45 days of arrival in Australia because they have no income or means to do so 
  • Men presenting with serious health problems such as HIV and cancer with no access to medical care 
  • Serious mental health issues such as depression due to being forced to live in abject poverty

SUGGESTED ACTION:

Please write to Australian members of Parliament, especially Amanda Vanstone, the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, urging them to amend the Migration Regulations of 1994 to abolish the 45 day rule and to abolish Bridging Visa E¡¦s. Furthermore, asylum seekers in the community seeking asylum and those released from detention must be placed on a Bridging Visa that guarantees the basic entitlements of the right to food, right to work, access to health care and an income during their refugee determination process and ministerial intervention process. Finally, in the interim, please also request that victims, suffering from illnesses due to their denial of rights, are provided with immediate health assistance by the State.

Suggested letter:

To the Hon Amanda Vanstone,

Re: AUSTRALIA: Asylum seekers denied the right to health

I am writing to voice my concern regarding asylum seekers¡¦ access to health care facilities while seeking asylum in Australia. This is particularly true for those asylum seekers who currently face uncertain futures having been placed on Bridging Visa E¡¦s. I am aware that this visa denies asylum seekers not only the right to free or subsidised Government-sponsored medical services, but also forbids them from seeking employment and makes them ineligible for government-funded financial assistance. Under such conditions, I question the Australian Government as to how it believes asylum seekers in Australia can survive.

I have been informed of four specific cases concerning the denial of right to health of asylum seekers in Australia. In the first case, a young boy suffered a seizure in his home. When a paramedic arrived and informed the boy¡¦s family that he required hospital attention, the mother explained that as they were asylum seekers on Bridging Visa E¡¦s, they did not have access to Medicare services. The mother also explained that the family could not afford the cost of the medical treatment themselves. Thankfully, and with luck, the paramedic had knowledge of the restrictions of the Bridging Visa E and had compassion for asylum seekers forced to endure such policies. He explained to the family that the state Minister for Health had made a determination that people on Bridging Visa E¡¦s should not be charged when attending the emergency department of Victorian state hospitals. Were it not for this particular paramedic arriving to treat the young boy, he may never have received the medical treatment he urgently required.

In the second and third cases, two elderly women, one from Asia and one from Eastern Europe, are both suffering from serious medical conditions and have both been told by doctors that they are unfit to travel. However, despite their seriously poor health, their age, and the advice given by their doctors not to travel, I am aware that the first woman was informed by the Australian government that she could receive adequate treatment in her own country, and that the woman from Eastern Europe is having to be cared for by her untrained daughter as her inability to access Medicare services means that she cannot get the professional treatment that she requires.

In the fourth case, a Middle Eastern family, whose son became seriously ill, was told upon arriving at a hospital that they must pay AUD150 if they wished him to be seen to by a doctor. However, unable to work and not entitled to any government financial assistance, the family could of course not afford this amount and therefore returned home without the boy being seen to. A short time later when their daughter suffered a serious burn to her leg, the family, knowing that they could not afford to have it properly seen to, instead applied toothpaste to the burn and wrapped it in a bandage.

It is incomprehensible to think that in a developed country such as Australia, that people are facing such appalling and inhumane conditions. It is even worse to know that the government is aware of these realities and yet, rather than making changes to improve the lives of asylum seekers in the country, is in fact taking steps to further restrict refugee policy.

According to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Australian government has a responsibility to give refugees the same treatment as Australian nationals in regards to work rights, social security, rationing and housing. In accordance with the intent of the Refugee Convention and Australia¡¦s other human rights obligations under international law, asylum seekers awaiting refugee determination should not be denied their basic human rights and placed in poverty. These four examples alone prove that the Australian government is not abiding by its obligations under international law. I am well aware that there are many more cases further proving this point.

I therefore ask that your department immediately amend the Migration Regulations of 1994 so that the Bridging Visa E is abolished. Asylum seekers in the community, and those released from detention, should be placed on a Bridging Visa that guarantees the basic entitlements of the right to work and access to healthcare and government-funded financial assistance, should it be required, during their refugee determination process.

In the interim, I trust that immediate steps will be taken to ensure that asylum seekers are no longer denied the right to health.

I look forward to your intervention in this matter.

Yours sincerely,

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PLEASE SEND A LETTER TO:

The Hon. Amanda Vanstone
Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs
Level 13
100 King William Street
Adelaide SA 5000
AUSTRALIA
Tel: +61 2 6277 7860
Fax: +61 2 6273 4144

PLEASE SEND COPIES TO:

1. The Hon John Howard
Prime Minister
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600
AUSTRALIA
Tel: +61 2 6277 7700
Fax: +61 2 6273 4100

2. The Hon Kim Beazely
Leader of the Opposition
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600
AUSTRALIA
Tel: +61 2 6277 4022
Fax: +61 2 6277 8495
Kim.Beazley.MP@aph.gov.au

3. Mr. Petro Georgiou MP
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600
AUSTRALIA
Tel: +61 2 6277 4419
Fax: +61 2 6277 4990
Email: P.Georgiou.MP@aph.gov.au

4. Mr. Tony Burke
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600
AUSTRALIA
Tel: +61 2 6277 4548
Fax: +61 2 6277 8417
Email: Tony.Burke.MP@aph.gov.au

5. Mr. Jean Zeigler
UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food
c/o Mr. Carlos Villan Duran
Room 4-066, OHCHR, Palais Wilson,
Rue des Paquis 52, Geneva
SWITZERLAND
Tel: +41 22 917 9300
Fax: +41 22 9179010
Email: sect.hchr@unog.ch

6. Mr. Antonio Guterres
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Case Postale 2500
CH-1211 Geneve 2 Depot
SWITZERLAND

7. UNICEF Australia
P.O. Box A 2005
Sydney South
N.S.W. 1235
Fax: +61 2 9261 2844
Email: unicef@unicef.org.au

8. Mr. Jacob Egbert Doek
Chairperson
Committee on the Rights of the Child
OHCHR-UNOG
8-14 Avenue de la Paix
1211 Geneva 10
SWITZERLAND
Fax: +41 22 917 9022

Thank you.

Urgent Appeals Programme -- Hunger Alert
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)

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