Australia faces increased pressure over remote detention policy

UNHCR and Australian doctors criticise policy as more details of trauma of detainees on remote Pacific islands emerge.

Manus Island
Refugee advocates protest against the treatment of asylum seekers at Australian detention centres located on Nauru and Manus Islands [File: David Gray/Reuters]

The Australian government, under pressure for its harsh migrant detention policy, has received a double blow as the United Nations and a leading doctors’ group again criticised its harsh treatment of refugees held on remote Pacific islands.

The regional office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on Monday accused “bureaucrats and politicians” of overruling doctors and putting lives at risk at camps on Nauru and Manus.

Australia sends migrants who try to reach the island continent by boat into “offshore detention” as part of a years-old policy designed to deter would-be asylum-seekers.

Catherine Stubberfield, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR, was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency that the policy had been “sold too simplistically” and that changing it was now a matter of “basic human treatment and decency”.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) on Monday also threw its weight behind those calling for the government to change course.

WATCH: Australia under pressure to release detained child refugees (2:24)

The minority government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison has quietly begun to transfer children off the island of Nauru, but is under immense pressure to close it completely.

Around 160 people, including women and children, remain in Nauru and it is believed as many as 600 men are still in “transition centres” on Manus after the Australian-run camp there was closed late last year.

‘Resignation syndrome’

Also on Monday, Kerryn Phelps, a doctor and independent member of parliament, put forward legislation requiring the temporary transfer from Nauru or Manus of anyone assessed as needing medical treatment as well as the temporary transfer of all children and their families from Nauru.

In a statement, the UNHCR supported the bill saying it would ensure “the fundamental healthcare that is the right of every human being”.

Meanwhile, Doctors Without Border, also known by its French initials MSF, said on Monday that almost a third of the people they had treated in Nauru before being expelled by the government in October had reported attempting suicide.

A dozen patients, the organisation said, had been diagnosed with “resignation syndrome” – a condition that causes people to withdraw into themselves in an almost comatose state.

David Isaacs of the RACP, a paediatrician who treated children in Nauru in 2015, said access to medical care must be determined by a doctor.

“There is a medical crisis in offshore detention,” Isaacs was quoted as saying by AFP. “It is a crisis that is entirely preventable. The government can act to end it.”

Polls show that a large number of Australians would like to bring the remaining children off Nauru, but are split on whether the broader population should be brought to Australia.

The tough detention policy is popular with Morrison’s right-wing base, which he needs to shore up amid dwindling support in parliament ahead of national elections due to be held by May.

Morrison has argued the policy deters people smugglers and saves lives, but the latest criticism from the UNHCR will only add to the pressure on the government.

“Australia retains responsibility for those it has relocated under so-called ‘offshore processing’,” Stubberfield said.

She suggested the government policy was partly responsible for the death of 24-year-old Hamid Khazaei, who died of sepsis contracted on Manus Island.

“Had he been evacuated to Australia within 24 hours of developing severe sepsis, Khazaei would have survived.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies