AUSTRALIA has begun turning away thousands of Papua New Guineans at the Torres Strait border, motivated by health fears and the need to protect the local indigenous population.
More than 30 years after the Torres Strait Treaty was signed, allowing limited free movement between the countries, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) is now enforcing rules that allow PNG citizens to enter Australia only for traditional purposes.
In the last six months of last year, after DIAC introduced tougher measures in July, 2022 PNG citizens were denied entry, 12.8% of all would-be travellers.
That represented a 10-fold increase on the same period the previous year, when only 224 people, or 1.5% of all would-be travellers, were denied entry.
Many travellers refused entry were deemed to be wrongly seeking health treatment at Queensland clinics, not considered a traditional activity under the treaty.
The spread of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis remains the biggest threat to the Torres Strait, but HIV will always be a concern, given it has reached epidemic proportions in some parts of PNG.
Mosquito-borne diseases are also an issue, although harder to combat.
The governments of Australia and PNG have long debated how to protect Torres Strait islanders from the obvious health risks of interaction with sick PNG citizens, and humanitarian considerations have seen Queensland health staff care for those who have limited or no access to health services at home.
While the governments have agreed to bolster health services in PNG, and allow free movement across the border for health workers and officials, Australia is taking a hard line on the issue before many of those measures are in place.
DIAC’s crackdown in the Torres Strait – including a January sweep of Saibai Island that resulted in 50 overstayers being sent back to PNG – will also be bolstered by a new Queensland health policy for its overstretched clinics.
Under the policy, Queensland health will urge its staff in the Torres Strait to treat only PNG citizens with acute illnesses or in need of emergency care and keep better records when they do.
Queensland health acting deputy director-general Bronwyn Nardi said the policy reflected the fact health care of PNG citizens was the responsibility of their government.
The policy will be subjected to regular review until such time as PNG health services are upgraded to a level that no longer leads PNG citizens to travel south for adequate care.