The Medical Evacuation Bill (just) passed through the Senate, but the legislation and the effects of our policy on Nauru should be examined.
The debates around refugees and asylum seeker policy in Australia can be pretty complicated. By itself, refugee policy is far from simple. Add in high-political stakes, half-truths and outright lies, and it’s almost impossible for the general public to understand what is going on.
This is partially by design. The Australian Government has refused access to journalists, human rights bodies, politicians and countless others to make sure that as little information as possible leaves the centres. The last thing they want is for footage showing the death and suffering of these camps to turn public opinion against them.
Here we will try and present a clear picture of what Kerryn Phelps’ Medical Transfer Bill is about, and Scott Morrison’s response.
Please be warned that the content below is distressing. Lifeline’s suicide hotline is 13 11 14.
The Australian Government have been holding refugees and asylum seekers in detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru since 2013. This policy has been repeatedly criticised by the United Nations and human rights groups like Amnesty International as illegal and inhumane.
A strong body of research shows that “indefinite detention”—that is, detention with no clear end date—has a devastating effect on people’s mental health.
For people on Manus and Nauru, this has meant countless suicide attempts, and severe psychological damage. Here are a few examples that we know of:
- a pre-teen girl doused herself in petrol in a suicide attempt on Nauru;
- before kids were finally removed from Nauru, 30 children were suffering from “traumatic withdrawal syndrome”, where individuals respond to severe trauma by “effectively withdrawing from life”
- an asylum seeker set himself on fire after hearing he would have to stay on Nauru for another decade. He died of his injuries.
MSF (Doctors Without Borders), who were providing medical care on Nauru until late last year, recently released a report outlining the prevalence of suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts in the centres.
They have called for an evacuation of all refugees on Nauru, and have commented that that the “mental health suffering on Nauru is among the most severe MSF has ever seen around the world”. When you consider that this is an organisation who works in war zones and with victims of torture, that is a serious claim.
The scale of the problem is immense.
The Government’s history of blocking urgent medical care
Kerryn Phelps’ Medical Transfer Bill is aimed at addressing one problem: the fact that Peter Dutton and officials constantly prevent people on Manus Island and Nauru getting urgent medical care.
While we’ll come to the content of the bill itself, let’s first look at a few examples:
- In 2017, a ten year old boy attempted suicide for the third time.
Medical professionals recommended he be transferred to Australia for immediate treatment. After five months of waiting, the Government rejected the application.
The case went to the federal court, where a judge ordered the boy to be brought to Australia. Not content, the department for Home Affairs tried to fight the injunction. They lost.
Eight months after the original application, the boy was brought to Australia for treatment. He is lucky to be alive.
- Last year, Hamid Khazaei died on Manus Island from a leg infection.
As the infection got worse, a doctor recommended he be urgently transferred to Australia for care.
The immigration official refused to approve the request. Instead, he referred it to his superior, who was not available until the following day. Finally, the transfer was granted, but it was too late. By the time Hamed had arrived at a Brisbane hospital, nothing could be done to save his life.
A coroner investigation found that his death was preventable. Two major issues were the lack of antibiotics on Manus Island, and failure to quickly approve the transfer to Australia.
Bastian Seidel, the President of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) said of the case: “…bureaucrats should never ever be allowed to override a clinical decision made by a medical doctor.”
These are only a few examples. Time and time again, Peter Dutton, the Home Affairs staff and bureaucrats have ignored recommendations from doctors, and rejected urgent transfers.
They have repeatedly made decisions on political grounds which cause suffering, harm and in some cases death to people in Australia’s care.
The Medical Transfer Bill
Kerryn Phelps’ Medical Transfer Bill makes it harder for Peter Dutton and officials to block medical transfers without good reason.
It is a balanced bill, which allows transfers to be blocked when involving an individual with serious criminal history, and the law would only apply to only those currently on Manus Island and Nauru.
The bill passed in the lower house last night, and the senate this afternoon. But Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced he will be reopening the detention centre on Christmas Island to avoid refugees being provided with urgent medical care.
During his announcement, Morrison claimed that Nauru has adequate medical care. This contradicts testimony made by the International Health and Medical Services—the organisation the Morrison Government employs for health services on Nauru. In a recent federal court case, the IHMS said that the Nauru hospital was unsafe for surgery and that patients had died during routine operations. “The advice of IHMS is that the hospital is not recommended.”