Lost at sea


Words || Katelyn Free

The negative impact of indefinite detention upon individuals is not new information. And the presence of this impact in the offshore detention centre on Nauru is similarly not new information. But finally, the state of this processing centre is being recognised as needing immediate change. However, the answer to whether Nauru will truly be retrieved from its lost state, is still adrift.

An audit of 83 medical records for refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru, including 17 children, has revealed that doctor’s recommendations for patients’ transfers have been repeatedly and routinely ignored for years. Almost all of the children included in the audit were diagnosed with severe psychiatric disorders including depression with psychotic features, adjustment disorder and chronic stress disorder. At least 15 adults and children remained on Nauru for between 13 months to two years after a transfer was recommended. These are only a sample of the results of the Wentworth by-election, and leading Scott Morrison to affirm the issue as one requiring urgent action. Despite this, several families and children still remain on the island.

Detention advocacy manager for Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Natasha Blucher, commented that “The Australian government is gambling with people’s lives”, noting “there are so many people with chronic conditions with humiliating and degrading symptoms that could ultimately be life-threatening, but they are being completely ignored”.

While urgent action is being taken by the government, it still stands that we have known for a long time the mental and physical state of children on Nauru. The 2014 Australian Human Rights Commission Report, The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry Into Children In Immigration Detention spelled out these issues clearly. There has been clear knowledge available of the detrimental effects of detention upon children on Nauru for at least four years, yet only after controversial evidence of potential medical negligence has arisen are these matters being taken seriously by the government. The Australian Medical Association has repeatedly called for the immediate removal of refugee and asylum seeker children and their families from Nauru.

It also cannot be ignored that several of the medical professionals on Nauru that have drawn attention to this particular issue have been recently removed. The chief medical officer for International Health and Medical Services on Nauru, Dr. Nicole Montana was ‘stood down’ and deported for taking a photograph of a refugee child at the centre. The Nauruan government denied Montana was forced to leave, however, Australian Government sources were reported by the ABC to have said that Nauruan officials suspected Montana planned to leak the photo, and this was one of the key reasons behind her removal. The policy regarding medical workers who take photos of their patients on Nauru was created in order to prevent media leaks and refugee advocates.

Montana’s predecessor Dr. Christopher Jones had his visa revoked and was removed from Nauru in September as a result of tensions surrounding patient transfer requests. Additionally, doctors with Medecins Sans Frontieres had their visas revoked and were removed from the island after their contract to provide mental health services to refugees and residents was abruptly cancelled. The Nauruan Government claimed the organisation was made up of ‘political activists’, thus justifying their removal.

These were the groups that initially signalled that a mental health crisis existed on Nauru.

While it is important progress that the removal of children from Nauru has come to this political climax, there are still glaring truths that can’t be ignored. Medical organisations were removed from the island for fear of exposing the medical realities of individuals in the processing centre, for fear of advocacy for their medical care and situations. While there is clear policy merit in wanting to preserve the privacy of individuals on Nauru and limiting the power of others to expose them without consent, the fact remains; there shouldn’t be anything to hide in the first instance. Fears for advocacy are not legitimate without there being a dangerous situation that needed to be kept hidden.

Nauru is easy to think about as a removed island country where questionable things happen under the cover of a media gag order. But now this lost island has been brought into sharp focus. We have known about the medical concerns for refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru for years. We have known about the suffering endured by children in detention. There are larger issues that underpin the flurry of activity that has recently occurred, and they still float on unanswered.