The government’s decision to send all boat arrivals to Papua New Guinea means – unless it grants exemptions - a significant shift in policy on children under seven, who until now have not been sent due to health concerns.
Immigration spokesman Sandi Logan said the department had not so far sent children under seven because of a “conservative” approach to the risks of malaria, a mosquito-born infectious disease that has severe consequences for the very young who have no built-up resistance.
All asylum seekers receive health checks including inoculation before they are sent offshore, including anti-malaria medication Malarone.
The World Health Organisation advises Malarone should not be given to children weighing less than five kilograms. Mr Logan said that while children aged seven usually weigh much more than that, the department “until now” had taken a “conservative” approach.
Infants are more prone to severe complications of malaria, including severe anaemia, seizures, coma and death. The risk is highest among children who have no immunity to malaria, particularly those who come from countries where malaria is not endemic.
The government has repeatedly said that all arrivals from the date of Kevin Rudd’s announcement of the PNG deal on July 19 would eventually go to PNG, which would mean that the policy towards the malaria risk would change.
So far the government has not conceded any exemptions.
When asked by The Conversation about the position, Immigration Minister Tony Burke reaffirmed the general policy while leaving himself a little wriggle room.
“There is an endless series of attempts to have me rule out particular individuals from being sent to Manus Island”, Burke said.
“The principles I will apply have been clear from day one: people will be sent to Manus Island when I am confident they will be safe and there is appropriate accommodation and services in place.
"For some groups, that will take a longer period of time to be established than for others, but in all cases, the rule that the Government has established will be applied, which is people who come by boat without a visa will not be settled in Australia, that’s why there is no longer any point getting on a boat.”
The WHO also recommends pregnant women should not receive Malarone until they are past the second trimester of pregnancy, although it is understood the department has not sent any pregnant women to Manus Island to date. Unless there is an exemption, this policy is also likely to change.
The director of the Centre for International Child Health at the University of Melbourne, Professor Trevor Duke, said PNG had among the highest rates of morbidity and mortality from malaria outside the African continent.
“Despite considerable reductions in malaria prevalence in the last decade in PNG, malaria is still in the top three causes of hospital admission amongst children.”
He said any change in policy to send young children would be “cavalier on many levels, not just for malaria. It’s potentially putting children’s health at risk.”
Burke indicated yesterday that the first people would be dispatched to Manus under the PNG solution from sometime this week, after a fortnight of health checks.
Only single men will be sent initially because of inadequate accommodation but the plan is to send women and children later.
No breakdown is available for small children but the boats are bringing in a number of them. Since the Rudd announcement there have been some 1350 passengers arrive.
The change of policy emerged when The Conversation’s Election FactCheck looked into a statement from opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison that “you cannot send children aged under seven to Manus Island because of the issues of inoculation - you can’t do it”.
The government recently removed women and children from Manus because of the conditions.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott said yesterday there was enormous doubt over whether the resettlement in PNG of people judged to be refugees would actually happen.
Fiji Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola yesterday launched a trenchant attack on the PNG solution.
Speaking in Brisbane at a business forum he said his government was “decidedly less than happy about Australia’s plan to move asylum seekers seeking to settle in Australia into Melanesia - into our neighbourhood.
"For an Australian problem, you have proposed a Melanesian solution that threatens to destabilise the already delicate social and economic balances in our societies.
"The Australian Government has used its economic muscle to persuade one of our Melanesian governments to accept thousands of people who are not Pacific Islanders, a great number of them permanently”, he said.
“This was done to solve a domestic political problem - and for short-term political gain - without proper consideration of the long-term consequences.
"This was done without any consultation, a sudden and unilateral announcement, which is not the Pacific Way and has shocked a great many people in the region”, he said.
He said this deal – and any with Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – “clearly threatens our interests by altering the fundamental social fabric of any member country that accepts a deal with Australia.
"We are deeply troubled by the consequent threat to the stability of these countries – and the wider Melanesian community – by the scale of what is being envisaged.”
Before things went any further there should be “thorough regional consultation”.
The Essential poll released yesterday found that 61% approved of the government’s PNG solution and only 28% disapproved. Asked how important the asylum seeker issue would be in how they voted, 35% said quite important but not as important as other issues, while 28% said one of the most important issues and 7% said the most important.
One quarter said Labor had the best policy for handling the asylum issue while 26% said the Liberals.