Are Asylum Seekers Subject to Involuntary Medical Repatriation?

by Jason Dzubow on April 28, 2010

In a report prepared for the United Nations, Seton Hall University School of Law’s Center for Social Justice and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest discuss the problem of involuntary medical repatriations–the practice of some hospitals to privately transport uninsured alien patients against their will to countries that may or may not have the capacity to care for them.  It is not clear how these “repatriations” affect asylum seekers, but an ABC News report quotes one hospital worker:

“About eight times a month, we make arrangements to transfer patients to their country of origin,” said Sister Margaret McBride, vice president for mission services at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. “We’ve had transfers to Asia and Africa by air ambulance, and we pay for transportation, which starts out at about $25,000 up to $100,000.”

Many asylum seekers come to the United States from Asia and Africa, and we can only wonder how many of those repatriated individuals were returned to countries where they feared persecution.

There are few statistics available about how many people are involuntarily repatriated each year.  One author on the Detention Watch Network website writes:

Medical repatriations are happening with varying frequency, and varying degrees of patient consent, from state to state and hospital to hospital. No government agency or advocacy group keeps track of these cases, and it is difficult to quantify them. A few hospitals and consulates offered statistics that provide snapshots of the phenomenon: some 96 immigrants a year repatriated by St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix; 6 to 8 patients a year flown to their homelands from Broward General Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; 10 returned to Honduras from Chicago hospitals since early 2007; some 87 medical cases involving Mexican immigrants — and 265 involving people injured crossing the border — handled by the Mexican consulate in San Diego last year, most but not all of which ended in repatriation.

Even these statistics provide little insight into the problem as we do not know how many of the repatriated individuals returned to their countries willingly.  One company involved in such transfers emphatically denies that it transports people to other countries without their consent.  Nevertheless, there do seem to be problems with repatriation:

Sister Margaret McBride, vice president for mission services at St. Joseph’s in Phoenix, which is part of Catholic Healthcare West, said families were rarely happy about the hospital’s decision to repatriate their relatives. But, she added, “We don’t require consent from the family.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee is currently considering the Refugee Protection Act, which provides important new protections for asylum seekers.  The new bill does not discuss the problem of medical repatriations, but this issue likely affects asylum seekers. 

Perhaps the bill could require any hospital that plans to repatriate foreign nationals involuntarily to question those people (or their family members) about any fear of returning to their homeland.  But hospitals are ill-equipped to make such inquiries.  Better the hospitals should end the practice altogether.  While it may save money, as Seton Hall points out, the practice violates patients’ rights and human rights.  Add to that the real possibility that some repatriated aliens will face persecution in their homelands.  These to me seem good reasons to stop involuntary medical repatriations. 

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