Before the euphemistically named Regional Processing Centre (RPC) on Manus Island was opened in November last year, expert reports on water supply and health risks were compiled to enable the Government to balance the “need” to process asylum seekers offshore against the consequences of doing so. Those reports have been released under Freedom of Information (FOI) requests made by Humanitarian Research Partners.
Tony Burke, the former Minister for Water, Environment and whatever else SEWPAC stands for, is now the Minister for Immigration. But he appears to be unconcerned about asylum seekers’ access to water on Nauru and Manus Island. A report by Humanitarian Research Partners on water supplies in asylum seeker facilties released in January highlighted large-scale problems with water security when the Manus Island centre’s population was only 300. Under the PNG Solution, the government plans to raise that number to 1300.
Humanitarian Research Partners has made dozens of attempts to contact Burke, and his predecessors Chris Bowen and Brendan O’Connor, SEWPAC and DIAC for comment about the report since its release. To date no response has been given to concerns raised about the adequacy, safety and sustainability of water supplies at Manus Island.
According to the FOI documents, before the Manus RPC opened, three local water sources were identified. Two were springs that have been dry since at least last year. The other was a dam whose owner has refused to deal with the Australian Government due to a “disagreement”. DIAC hasn’t commented on whether his position has changed since November last year.
These three sources unavailable, the government had to find another solution to provide water to the camp. At first military-supplied reverse osmosis (RO) filtration units were used, until a private contractor was hired to install a larger, more permanent system.
DIAC aims to provide 200L of water per person per day, which is well above minimum international standards. However, asylum seekers have reported to Humanitarian Research Partners that there are often water curfews, and there have been several verified outages of more than three days, with one longer than a week. Water curfews usually run throughout the day, resulting in poor sanitation. Asylum seekers have reported to me via email that they have been given imported bottled water to drink, suggesting there is a struggle to meet demand servicing only 300 detainees and support staff.
The reverse osmosis water systems don’t work properly if there is no constant flow of water, which is a problem for the machines on Manus Island that are often left dry by low tides. Without an alternate supply on the island this can result in almost immediate shortages for asylum seekers. Reservoir reports show storage tanks are seldom at capacity, and rarely have enough water to supply the centre for a full day.
Manus Island is also home to a particularly nasty strain of malaria, plasmodium falciparum, which is resistant to most anti-malarial medication and can be extremely difficult to treat. While 94 per cent of locals have some form of malaria (according to the World Health Organisation (WHO)), around 80 per cent have this antibody-resistant form. The WHO describes transmission rates on the island as intense.
Documents released under FOI in June show the government knew of the risks posed by malaria and other viruses endemic to the island and chose to continue transfers anyway. Both the report and manufacturer-provided drug information clearly state that special care should be taken to ensure pregnant women and small children are safe from malaria. Very few anti-malarial medications have been tested in pregnant women, including both Malarone (used for most asylum seekers at Manus Island) and Mefloquine (given to pregnant women there). Three women miscarried whilst detained at Manus Island, and whilst it is impossible to attribute these to malaria or the medication, it is interesting that all pregnant women and those with small children were moved from Manus to Inverbrackie in March this year.
In response to a recommendation made by IHMA, Australia’s detention network healthcare provider against allowing pregnant women and small children to travel or reside in the remote detention centre, DIAC responded that, “it is safe with appropriate prophylactic and preventative measures to reside in these environments, in fact many clients will have already voluntarily come through such regions [with high rates of malaria].” The first phrase is simply wrong in terms of especially vulnerable groups, and the second phrase is a little absurd; it implies that asylum seekers have waived their right to protection from malaria simply by having transited through a region with malaria on their way to find safety in Australia.
No matter how we dress it up, putting asylum seekers in direct danger of contracting an untreatable and incredibly painful disease, in substandard conditions without adequate water, sanitation or shelter violates human rights. Notwithstanding any technical arguments for the legality of the arrangements on Manus Island, the consequences for those detained indefinitely on an island wracked with life-threatening dangers are disastrous.
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