Cost of responding to court claims is sharply rising as asylum seekers’ healthcare woes mount
Detainees at Nauru who cannot be treated at local clinics like this one must be transported off the island, at great cost to Australia. Photograph: AP
The Home Affairs department has spent almost half a million dollars in legal fees in three months responding to court applications for urgent medical transfers of asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru.
The amount revealed at Senate estimates on Monday afternoon vastly eclipses the total for the entire previous year, and applies to about 37 cases — sometimes involving multiple people — brought to court since 1 July.
A growing number of critically ill people held on Nauru have sought legal intervention to access required healthcare unavailable on Nauru.
In Senate estimates on Monday the department’s first assistant secretary, Pip De Veau, revealed the total cost of responding to such applications in the first quarter of 2018-19 was approximately $480,000.
The funds covered external legal providers and counsel, and do not include costs orders.
Last month Guardian Australia reported the government had spent $326,000 last financial year, with widespread expectations that it would be far more this year.
However on Monday that figure was given as $275,000, and a total amount across the two financial years of about $780,000. Guardian Australia has sought clarification.
The rising costs are caused by an increase in the number of cases brought to court, from seven in the months of May to August, up to 19 in the month of September alone. There have been 16 since the beginning of this month, but De Veau said there were another one or two in recent days that may not be counted in the data.
Of the cases since May, there have been 36 court orders, four that reflect ministerial undertakings, and four cases where no orders were given.
“The orders have varied, sometimes the orders are relating to the provision of certain medical care and are not specific as to where,” said De Veau.
Some others specified Australia, while others included specific hospitals and doctors, she added.
Guardian Australia has reported on cases that included the subject be transferred with family members, to specific hospitals, or — in at least one case — specifically not by anyone connected to Australian Border Force or its health contractor IHMS.
Pezzullo didn’t recall any cases relating to people in onshore detention.
The cases have been brought by Australian-based legal firms, representing clients on Nauru who have in many cases been recommended for medical transfer repeatedly, sometimes for months or years.
They include a large number of children, among whom there is a worsening mental health crisis and several cases of resignation syndrome — a rare and potentially fatal conditions which is considered a reaction to extreme trauma.
As of the end of last month Guardian Australia was aware of 32 cases since January, including 22 brought by the National Justice Project, with 19 involving children as the primary applicant.
Some cases have also revealed an as-yet unsolved problem with the Nauruan government seeking to block the court-ordered medical transfers by refusing permission for an air ambulance to land.
The department’s Cheryl-Anne Moy confirmed there were “some instances” where people couldn’t be moved within the ordered timeframe, sometimes because of problems with the person themselves.
Anyone with outstanding issues with the Nauruan police force cannot be taken out – and this can include those arrested for attempting suicide – and Nauru must give approval for landings. Commercial flights have limits on the number of people with issues like mental healths issues on each flight.