The Current

Doctors censure Australian government over treatment of migrants held in island detention centre

A former Australian medical officer is calling out his government after reports that hundreds of migrants currently detained on the remote island of Nauru were suffering from severe mental and physical distress.

About 650 refugees are being held in an 'offshore processing centre' in Nauru, which critics liken to a prison

Refugee advocates hold placards as they participate in a protest in Sydney, Australia, against the treatment of asylum-seekers at Australia-run detention centres located at Nauru and Manus Island on Nov. 18, 2017. (David Gray/Reuters)

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A former Australian medical officer is calling out the government after reports that hundreds of migrants currently detained on the remote island of Nauru were suffering from severe mental and physical distress.

"I'm used to seeing people who've been exposed to trauma, and what I saw here was an absolute level of despair which I've never, ever encountered before," Dr. Nick Martin, Australia's former senior medical officer in Nauru, told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Australia has been widely criticized by the United Nations and rights groups for detaining asylum seekers who try to reach its shores by boat — even if they are found to be refugees — and keeping them on offshore processing centres in Nauru and Manus Island on Papua New Guinea.

According to the latest figures, there are some 650 people being held in the centre in Nauru. Some have been there since it opened in 2013.

This July 24, 2018, photo provided by Medecins Sans Frontieres shows the Naoero Public Health Centre, one of the locations where MSF provided mental health services to asylum seekers, refugees and Nauruan locals. (Medecins Sans Frontieres via Associated Press)

Martin was particularly perturbed by reports that children being held at the facility are suffering from "resignation syndrome," a severe form of mental distress where the afflicted essentially lose the will to live.

"They take to their beds. They stop eating. They stop drinking. Sometimes they won't communicate; sometimes they won't even leave the room to empty their bladders or their bowels," Martin described.

"They would rather be dead than to continue living in the state that they're in."

Later on Monday, Australia's Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs Michael Pezzullo announced that they had evacuated 11 child migrants from Nauru to Australia for medical treatment.

These people need to have safety. They need to have some kind of security ... But they have not got that in Nauru- Dr. Nick Martin, Australia's former senior medical officer in Nauru

According to BBC News, Pezzullo said any migrants transferred to Australia would not be granted permanent asylum to Australia.

He argued such a move would encourage "perverse behaviours" such as migrant intentionally harming themselves to instigate a transfer.

The Current requested an interview with a representative of the Australian government, but officials denied the request.

"There are adequate health services on the island including 65 contract health professionals and more than 30 mental health professionals," the government said in a statement.

Australia executive director Paul McPhun, right, speaks along with other Medecins Sans Frontieres Christine Ruffler, left, and Beth O'Connor during a press conference in Sydney on Oct. 11, 2018. (Danny Casey/AAP Image via AP)

Martin doesn't buy it.

"I don't want to be swearing too loudly on your program this early in the morning, but that's absolute bulls," he said.

"These people need to have safety. They need to have some kind of security, whether that be in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, England — I don't really care where. But they have not got that in Nauru."

Doctors kicked out

Earlier this month, Medecins sans Frontières (MSF) was forced to close its operations by the Nauru government and forbidden to return to their patients at the facility. 

"Medecins sans Frontières are an apolitical organization, and for the Nauru government to get rid of them is quite unbelievable, really," said Martin.

The Current requested comment from the Nauru government and Canstruct, the Australian company running operations in the detention centre in Nauru, but neither have responded.

A relative of asylum seekers currently being held on Nauru, known only as Fida, cries during a media conference held by Amnesty International in Sydney on Oct. 18, 2016. (David Gray/Reuters)

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that MSF's Dr. Nicole Montana was detained by Nauru police after she took a photo of a child being treated in the detention centre.

According to the ABC, the Nauru government forbids medical officers from photographing their patients in an attempt to prevent leaks to the media and advocates.

Pressure from Australian Greens

The situation on Nauru is under increased scrutiny in Australian parliament, partially because the ruling Liberal Party is teetering on losing its one-party majority after a recent byelection defeat.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is likely to have to rely on the support of five independents to prevent a no-confidence motion that could trigger an election.

Nick McKim, senator for Tasmania and the Green Party's spokesperson for citizenship and immigration, says his party is calling for all the detainees in Nauru to be immediately transferred to Australia for medical assessment and treatment.

"They're not offshore processing facilities, they're prisons," McKim told Tremonti.

"Unfortunately, both the Labour and Liberal parties, the two major political parties in this country, are refusing to accede to [The Greens'] request."

McKim spoke to The Current before the announcement that 11 of the children would be relocated, but Reuters reports that more than 50 children remain in Nauru.

The government suggested it's willing to accept New Zealand's offer to resettle up to 150 of the detained migrants, but only under the condition that none of them are allowed to travel to Australia afterwards.

McKim likened the offer as effectively "using children as political pawns."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page.


Written by Jonathan Ore with files from Reuters. Produced by Donya Ziayee and Pacinthe Mattar.

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