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Australia: No residency for boy with Down syndrome

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[November 03, 2008]  SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- Thirteen-year-old Lukas Moeller has Down syndrome. His father is a doctor who came to Australia from Germany to help fill a shortage of physicians in rural communities.

But now Australia has rejected Dr. Bernhard Moeller's application for residency, saying Lukas does not meet the "health requirement" and would pose a burden on taxpayers for his medical care, education and other services.

The case has provoked an outcry in the rural region of southeastern Victoria state, where Moeller is the only internal medicine specialist for a community of 54,000 people. Residents rallied outside Moeller's practice this week demanding the decision be overturned, and hundreds of Internet and radio complaints from across the country bombarded media outlets Friday.

Moeller vowed to fight the immigration department ruling.

"We like to live here, we have settled in well, we are welcomed by the community here and we don't want to give up just because the federal government doesn't welcome my son," he told reporters Friday.

The doctor has powerful supporters. Victoria Premier John Brumby has pledged to support the family's appeal, and federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon said Friday she would speak to the immigration minister about the case.

Moeller moved to Australia two years ago with his wife Isabella, their daughter Sarah, 21, and sons Lukas and Felix, 17, to help fill a critical need for doctors in rural areas. They settled in Horsham, a town of 20,000 located about 100 miles northwest of Melbourne.

Moeller's temporary work visa is valid until 2010, but his application for permanent residence was rejected this week.

In its decision, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship cited Lukas' "existing medical condition," saying it was "likely to result in a significant and ongoing cost to the Australian community," according to a statement Thursday.

"This is not discrimination. A disability in itself is not grounds for failing the health requirement -- it is a question of the cost implications to the community," the statement said.

Moeller said immigration authorities did not take into account the family's ability to provide Lukas with the care he needs.

"They think he is a burden for the Australian community," Moeller told the Melbourne radio station 3AW. "But we are absolutely able to support him and I don't want him to rely on any government pension anyway. He's well looked after. And actually he can contribute to the community here. He already is contributing to it."

Immigration officials "weren't even interested in what we have done and are able to do for him," the doctor added.

Moeller said Lukas attends a mainstream elementary school, where he has an aide, and receives speech therapy. The boy also plays soccer, cricket, golf and table tennis.

Cora Halder, head of the Down Syndrome InfoCenter in Germany, called the decision outlandish.

"The case with the Australian authorities is disappointing and unacceptable -- especially because Australia has very advanced programs for people with Down syndrome, far more than in Germany," she told The Associated Press.

David Tolleson, executive director of the Atlanta-based National Down Syndrome Congress, agreed.


"What is the cost implication to the community of a doctor shortage?" Tolleson asked. "I assume the son had the same costs for the last two years and they were happy to have the family and use the dad as a doctor."

Down syndrome, caused by an extra chromosome, is characterized by mental retardation of varying degrees. Those with the condition also can have other problems: Nearly half will have a heart defect, some serious enough to require surgery soon after birth.

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Trig Palin, the 6-month-old son of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, has Down syndrome, and she has pledged to shift billions of dollars to programs for children with special needs if she is elected.

Tolleson said that people with Down syndrome have a spectrum of abilities.

"Some need more support, some go on to graduate from college with a four-year degree, and most are somewhere in between," he said.

Of the Australian decision, he said: "I would seriously hope they would rethink their policy and rethink the benefits which a person would bring to the community, not the least of which is the dad."

Moeller made the same argument, noting his qualifications were benefiting Australia at no cost to taxpayers.

"I am a specialist in internal medicine and I am the only one here. This is a crucial service for the area," he told 3AW. "I'm a qualified, well-trained professional, and I came here without the Australian community having to pay anything for me to get this qualification."

Don McRae, director of clinical services at Wimmera Health Care Group, said the hospital had invested a lot of time and energy in recruiting Moeller.

"It's distressing for Dr. Moeller's family and distressing for the community who have welcomed him and relied on his medical services," he said.

Australia's immigration minister, Chris Evans, has no power to intervene in the case until after it is appealed to the Migration Review Tribunal or a court upholds the department's decision.

But Roxon, the health minister, said: "There is a valid reason for this doctor and his family to be eligible to stay here in Australia."

"As a government, we understand the importance of having doctors working in our rural and regional communities, and we support them in many ways and continue to do this," she said.

Neighbors in Bad Driburg, a town about 130 miles from Cologne in western Germany, where the Moellers lived before emigrating, recalled the family's excitement at moving to Australia, which they had fallen in love with while on a vacation.

"They were fine people," said Caecilia Thormann, a former neighbor, adding that Lukas "was a friendly boy, a very friendly child."

Australia's immigration department said it appreciates Moeller's contribution to the community but said it must follow the relevant laws in considering residency applications.

"If we did not have a health requirement, the costs to the community and health system would not be sustainable," the statement said.

[Associated Press; By TANALEE SMITH]

Associated Press writers Stephan Koehnlein in Frankfurt, Germany; Erich Reimann in Stuttgart, Germany, and Carley Petesch in New York contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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