Sean Parnell; 17/11/09
An immigration crackdown on Papua New Guinean nationals illegally crossing the Torres Strait to seek medical treatment has already seen hundreds of people turned back at the border. With such treatment not considered a traditional activity under the free-movement provisions of the Torres Strait Treaty, the federal government has come under increasing pressure to prevent sick, injured and often contagious PNG nationals entering Australia. Officials from Australia and PNG have been working to improve health services in PNG, to lessen the need for people to cross the border, and plan to relax immigration controls to allow medical professionals and other officials to travel more freely in the region.
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So contentious has the issue become that Queensland Health, which routinely treats PNG nationals with tuberculosis and other serious conditions, is also reconsidering the extent of its involvement.
But after an Australia-PNG ministerial council meeting last year acknowledged a need for “proper application” of the treaty, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has finally moved to prevent the health clinics and other local services from becoming overloaded.
Customs and police still struggle to effectively monitor border crossings. A DIAC spokesperson yesterday confirmed “enhanced integrity measures” adopted in July had seen almost 500 people refused entry to Australia — 8 per cent of all would-be travellers across the Tones Strait — in the first three months. By comparison, only 617 were refused entry in the previous full financial year, when there were almost 60,000 movements across the Tones Strait, most by PNG nationals. Of those refused entry this year, more than half hoped to access health services.
The Queensland government, in a submission to a Senate inquiry into matters relating to the Tones Strait, has highlighted how commonwealth funding fails to cover the cost of treating PNG patients, especially when one patient alone required $24,588 in tuberculosis drugs.