How Australia finally started to care about asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru
Australian immigration and asylum How Australia finally started to care about asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru
A change in sentiment has been driven by doctors, charities, human rights groups and social welfare bodies
At some point this week the Nauru issue broke through a barrier. Mental illness among the 650 or so refugees and asylum seekers left on the island was declared at crisis point quite some time ago, but suddenly almost everyone who wasnât already there had decided enough is enough.
More than 30 children arrived on Australian soil, with their families, for urgent medical care in the past two weeks, most by court order or under a court-facilitated agreement.
It followed months of reports on the emergence of what is known as resignation syndrome, a potentially fatal illness described as a response to extreme trauma that sees those afflicted withdraw from the world, refuse to eat or drink and unable to respond.
The federal court has heard more and more urgent cases for transfer, and estimates revealed on Monday the government has spent $480,000 since July in responding to or challenging them.Eleven refugee children transferred from Nauru to Australia in one day Read more
On Thursday the Liberal MP Julia Banks became the first government member to publicly call for all children and families held on Nauru to be brought to Australia, accusing both parties of focusing on politics. She even disputed her own governmentâs long-running claim that the families arenât in detention.
Kerryn Phelps â" the likely new MP for Wentworth â" and a host of backbenchers called for the same.
News Corp tabloids have been reporting cases of kids in mental distress without describing them as âthe faces refugee advocates will useâ to lobby for policy change.
Former department officials have gone public about quitting their jobs, unable to be part of the system anymore.
The AMA and its president, as well as medical colleges and almost 6,000 individual doctors, have publicly lobbied the government.
A coalition of charities, human rights organisations and social welfare groups has continued their #kidsoffnauru campaign, while others such as the UNHCR and Medecins Sans Frontieres argued it doesnât go far enough and that everyone, including single adults, had to be evacuated.
A United Nations body found, again, that Au stralia breached international law.
There are few organisations now not speaking out about Nauru.'Begging to die': succession of critically ill children moved off Nauru Read more
The only body which argues in the face of condemnation with more force than the Australian government is Nauru, through its vociferous Twitter account.
It has become more vocal, more unpredictable and more involved, blocking air ambulances, razing the tents of RPC3, kicking out MSF.
Across the life of this offshore detention system, in both Nauru and Papua New Guinea, the Australian government has deflected questions and allegations by saying it is a matter for the host countryâs government.
Recently, Nauru seems to have noticed, making unilateral decisions even when those decisions go against Australian government plans or Australian federal court orders.
According to sources on the island and connected to government, itâs a combinatio n of power struggles, ethical conflicts, domestic politics and rivalries, and anger at the countryâs reputational damage contributing to the chaos on Nauru.
One of the first clues was the revelation a Nauruan official had allegedly blocked the court-ordered medical transfer of a refugee to Australia, which many speculated was a case of the government seeking to save face while it hosted the Pacific Islands Forum.
Just days before the forum, Nauru had bulldozed the most notorious of the mould-infested tents and moved people into nicer accommodation.
But the blockings â" which Nauru denies despite evidence presented in court by the Australian government â" continued well after the forum ended.
The Australian government found itself hamstrung, unable to get around Nauruâs belligerence without illegally landing an unapproved aircraft.
Court documents revealed Australian Border Force was concerned that to do so would damage the offshore processing âworking relationshipâ between the two countries.
The name of the official who blocked that first order â" because she did not believe it was a medical emergency â" is Barina Waqa, a lawyer by trade, daughter of president Baron.
Waqa is the Nauru secretary for multicultural affairs, a position also identified in correspondence from ABF to refugees as the reason their transfers may be delayed.
Waqa maintains all transfers must go through the overseas medical referral committee, which Nick Martin, the former senior medical officer for IHMS, describes as ad hoc, inefficient and bending with the politics of whoever sits on it at the time.
Some suggest financial motivation for the blocking â" Nauru receives visa fees for each refugee it hosts from the Australian government. Then there is the employment created by hosting the refugee and asylum seeker population.
Many of those transferred off were ordered by Australiaâs federal court, which was increasingly seeing medical records from Medecins Sans Frontieresâ mental health workers used as evidence.
Earlier this month Nauru gave the organisation less than a day to pack up and get out. The Home Affairs department revealed at estimates it first heard of Nauruâs decision through the media.
Once back in Australia MSF took the largely unprecedented step of publicly condemning the conditions and calling for a mass evacuation of all r efugees and asylum seekers.
Nauru accused it of being activists conspiring against the country, and treating refugees when it wasnât supposed to. MSF produced their agreement with the government which explicitly said they could treat anybody.
Some speculated Nauru was angry at the medical records going to court. IHMS â" the Australian-contracted health service â" does not give its records to patients.
Others linked it to the ongoing saga of the Nauru 19 â" a group of people, including a former min ister Mathew Batsiua and former president â" charged over attending a protests outside parliament. There is evidence of a blacklist in operation on the island, targeting members of the group despite Nauruâs court dismissing the case against them.
That judgment contained evidence that Batsiua had rented his house to MSF, and according to his testimony, he was called by an MSF staff member who said theyâd been told to vacate the premises and stop paying him or âit would be forced by the government to leave Nauru altogetherâ.
The lease was abandoned in June but in October the government kicked them out anyway.
Island sources have also reported a punitive lurch in the way Nauruan authorities are treating asylum seekers and refugees.UN body says Australia breached human rights laws and needs to review Migration Act Read more
Refugees are allegedly being threatened with arrest if they attempt suicide, and parents who take their children to hospital are being told theyâll be charged with neglect and have their children removed.
Itâs been described as a threat to stop children presenting to hospital. No presentations means no reportable problem. Nauru denies this.
Nevertheless the Australian government maintains its strong border protection policy and politics, although there have been aberrations which could be a softening or just confusion in attempts to respond to the shifting community sentiment.
Scott Morrison for a moment â" around the time of the Wentworth byelection â" flagged accepting New Zealandâs resettlement offer before rescinding.
The government is agreeing to some court applications for transfers while at the same time challenging the legality of the federal court to hear them.
Labor, the Greens, and people including former human rights commissioner, Gillian Triggs, cited pragmatism in partly supporting the governmentâs proposed lifetime visa ban if it mea nt getting people to New Zealand, a proposal otherwise decried as needlessly cruel and operationally unnecessary.
There are fewer people left as more are transferred off the island every week, and some are resettled in the US, but the urgent concerns about health remain.Topics
- Australian immigration and asylum
- Australian politics
- Asia Pacific
- Kerryn Phelps
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