Australia And Its Asylum Problem: Refugees Denied Medical Aid

Last week, a whistleblower within Australia’s refugee detention centre on the Pacific island nation of Nauru claimed that around 50 refugees and asylum seekers are being refused oversees medical treatment against the pressured advice of medical professionals. At least four of those being refused medical help are pregnant women wishing to terminate their pregnancy. In Nauru, where terminations are illegal, the Australian government is unashamedly washing its hands of asylum seekers and refugees who are in need of urgent medical aid. To deny a termination to a pregnant woman in a detention camp – a makeshift, scant and barb-wired site for credible refugees – where real concerns have been raised regarding the mental health of the mother, is impermissible for a country seeking election to the UN human rights council.

Since July, it has been the Australian Department of Immigration’s objective to make medical aid as difficult as possible to obtain for asylum seekers and refugees. Adding unnecessary and questionable layers of bureaucracy to the process, the department has recently insisted that all medical transfers be approved by an ad hoc committee in Nauru hospital. Where urgent referrals were previously a matter for the Australian Border Force, important decisions regarding the health and well-being of refugees are now in the hands of a middleman committee, denounced by staff on the island as a political effort at obstruction. When the Australian government ignores psychiatric advice that there are significant risks to one of the pregnant women’s physical and mental health, it seems that the government has traded its moral responsibility and its commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention for less paperwork and a steady position in the polls. Perhaps the historical precedent of women seeking injunctions against the government once they have been granted treatment in Australia has something to do with this recent development.

If Australia does want to limit its intake of refugees and asylum seekers, despite its incumbent role in the international community, it should start with tougher diplomatic pressure on overseas nations harbouring criminal smugglers and stronger resettlement deals with New Zealand and the US. To ship asylum seekers off to fellow regional countries where the respect for human-rights is dubious and to intern them indefinitely in detention camps where medical aid is denied and living conditions are widely condemned is not the answer. This has little impact on the number of arrivals and exacerbates their already terrible situation. The news that an Iranian asylum seeker, Hamed Shamshiripour, committed suicide less than 2 weeks ago just outside the refugee transit centre on Manus Island makes this abundantly clear.

A recent report by François Crépeau, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, has heavily criticised the Australian government over its offshore detention camps. Alluding to cases of physical damage and psychological trauma suffered by asylum seekers and refugees, including cases of rape and sexual abuse by security guards, Crépeau found the nature of the camps illegal under international law. The report further insisted that the Australian government’s popular branding of asylum seekers without documentation as ‘illegal’ is not only false but characteristic of its demonization of migrants and asylum seekers who have not, in fact, committed any crime.

Though Australia has admirably received around 12,000 additional refugees from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and raised its prospective refugee quotas, the issue of its detention camps and the conditions within them cannot be ignored. As the Obama administration previously urged the present Turnbull government to change its policy of offshore detention for refugees, Russel Broadbent, a Liberal MP from Victoria, delivered a speech to the Australian House of Representatives last week in which he rejected the official party line and called for refugees in the Nauru and Manus camps to be resettled permanently in Australia.

A cold and cruel policy which dates back from the 1990s, through the Labour governments of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd to the governments of Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, it is essential that Australia get to grips with the inhumanity of its offshore camps and acts compassionately and intelligently when it comes to the pressing global problem of refugees. Countless have died seeking refuge in Australia and in other places across the globe. Australia cannot shirk its responsibility to deal with the problem in a humane and legal way.

Jack Thompson