The international medical company contracted to look after refugees on Manus Island has no idea who will replace it in just two months when Australia withdraws entirely from the island.
International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), which runs a round-the-clock clinic at Australia’s regional processing centre (RPC) and a smaller service in Lorengau, will depart Papua New Guinea on October 31 when its contract ends.
The RPC is due to close completely by that date, but about 700 refugees are still awaiting promised resettlement in the US, and the future for 250 asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected also remains uncertain.
Fairfax Media understands senior staff at IHMS are concerned that they have not been told who will take over the provision of medical services for the refugees and asylum seekers, and no handover process has commenced.
Asked about the issue at a press conference last week, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said: “There’ll be contracted arrangements entered into with providers and that information will be provided as it normally would be.”
He said further questions should be directed to IHMS. But IHMS referred inquiries to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, which in turn said it was a matter for the PNG government.
Fairfax Media spoke with Gao Thau, chief medical officer at PNG’s health department, who described the situation as “worrying” and said he was awaiting direction from the Australian government.
“We have to get the information from Australia whether they will give this facility to Papua New Guinea,” he said.
“It’s at a high level, so we can’t make any definite statements, we have to get the statement from the government of Australia.
“If the government of Australia decides to hand over to PNG then we will take over. We are still waiting for that.”
PNG’s new cabinet was sworn in earlier this month and Dr Thau said his department had been “unable to brief” the new health minister because of the lack of clarity from Australia.
“I think we just have to wait patiently,” he said.
The development came as PNG’s new attorney-general, Davis Steven, reportedly told Australian officials PNG was “not going to allow” Australia to leave Manus Island without a plan for the men left behind.
“The PNG government is not going to allow a situation where Australia has withdrawn and leaves behind all these international fugitives who they expect us to carry on our steam,” he told the ABC.
Greens immigration spokesman Nick McKim said it was a clear sign PNG would not be complicit in Australia’s decision to “abandon” the men on Manus Island.
“This is no surprise,” he said on Saturday. “The Australian government has treated the PNG government with absolute contempt all the way through this sorry saga.”
Mr Dutton has long insisted the centre will close on October 31, following a PNG Supreme Court ruling last year declaring the refugees’ ongoing detention unconstitutional. Parts of the facility have already been shuttered.
About 60 sick refugees and asylum seekers have been transferred to Port Moresby in recent weeks for appointments with doctors in the capital, according to other refugees on the island.
Authorities are also pressuring refugees and asylum seekers to move to a transit centre in Lorengau. In May, the immigration department confirmed capacity at the transit centre was being expanded to 440.
Department statistics showed 791 men remained at the Manus Island RPC on July 31. The numbers at Lorengau are said to fluctuate daily, while earlier in the year, Mr Dutton said about 36 refugees had chosen to resettle in PNG.