'I Wish I Died In The Boat': Refugees Forgotten In Debate Over Medical Transfer Bill

As politicians continue to debate over the future of medical transfers, a few dozen refugees are sitting in a PNG hospital, awaiting medical treatment.

Suspected organ failure, heart conditions, and neurological issues including seizures, epilepsy and depression.

These are the conditions advocates and medical professionals say refugees are suffering on the Papua New Guinean island, conditions that necessitate their urgent evacuation to Australia.

"I have no energy. I hate this life," said an Iraqi refugee named Ali*, suffering a multitude of issues including a stomach infection that has rendered him unable to eat, depression and a leg injury.

"I wish I had died in the boat."
Ali, in hospital in Port Moresby (supplied)

On Tuesday, federal politicians are expected to consider a bill that would aim to give greater opportunity to medically evacuate refugees and asylum seekers from offshore facilities on Manus Island and Nauru to healthcare in Australia.

A complicated set of amendments been proposed and protracted negotiations have gone on, with Labor expected to backtrack on its earlier position and concede ground to the government.

Reports on Monday night suggested the opposition could agree to amendments that would allow the Minister for Immigration to overrule a panel of medical professionals who have called for a refugee to travel to Australia for treatment.

Ali in hospital, with an IV in his neck (supplied)

But largely lost in this who-blinks-first contest have been the people who will be actually materially affected by its outcome -- the approximately 1200 men, women and children on Manus and Nauru.

There have been 12 deaths in Australia's offshore detention system to date. An inquiry into the death of one man -- Hamid Khazaei -- showed an inadequate response to his infected leg led to his death, with the Queensland coroner calling for an overhaul of the medical response to offshore detainees.

"The conversation should be focusing on the sick people and doctors, but the government has manipulated it to be about borders and security," Jana Favero, director of advocacy for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, told 10 daily.

"There has been too much focus on politics."

Currently, refugees and asylum seekers are transferred to Australia -- often to Brisbane -- for medical treatment, but many of these transfers are opposed by the government, and the ones who do come are kept under strict supervision by security and immigration authorities.

Favero and others from the ASRC are in Canberra this week, as part of a coalition of refugee and human rights groups, calling for a version of the bill to be passed that would expedite the transfer of critically sick refugees to Australia for treatment.

Men at the former Manus Island detention in PNG, in 2014. (AAP Image/Eoin Blackwell)

One of those is Ali, a 52-year-old man on Manus. He has been in Port Moresby's hospital since November 2018 -- one of up to 25 men from Manus currently severely ill in the city's hospital.

10 daily has been told he has collapsed veins, and a stomach infection so severe he has been unable or unwilling to eat since early November.

Ali told 10 daily he is currently on four types of psychiatric medication.

"I can’t eat. I am too sick," he said.

"I am no good. I cannot give myself a guarantee."

Iranian refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani reported on Sunday that at least 25 men on Manus were currently in the hospital.

"There are people with heart conditions, organ failure, blindness, significant mental health disorders, people trying to self-harm daily," Favero told 10 daily.

She also said mental health treatment on Nauru was "completely inadequate", especially in light of Medecins Sans Frontieres being forced to leave the island in a well-publicised dispute with the Australian government. 

The Australian Medical Association has also criticised the focus on politics at the expense of human beings in the debate. In a Sky News interview on Monday, Dr Paul Bauert said "lives are at stake. The politicking must stop."

Favero said, in contrast to the federal government's claims, that passing the bill to expedite medical transfers would not "open the floodgates" to refugees entering Australia, and suggested only a "handful" per week would come in the beginning.

The government has suggested passing the law could lead to all refugees quickly coming to Australia, a claim rejected by doctors.

* - name has been changed.