Australia can't be allowed to play politics with refugees' lives any more

Australia can't be allowed to play politics with refugees' lives any more

This article first appeared in The Guardian.

There is an urgent medical crisis on Nauru and Manus. It needs an urgent medical solution, not a political one.

I have seen up close how six years of abject hopelessness can viciously conquer a person’s body and mind to the point where they are a shadow of a human being.

A man, barely in his 30s, left catatonic, unable to speak, unable to eat, wasting away in a bed.

A woman attempting to take her own life, disengaged from the world, so weak she can’t lift her head or stand upright.

Parents anxiously taking shifts to watch their daughter night and day to make sure she doesn’t kill herself with their kitchen knife.

The medical and humanitarian crisis in Australia’s offshore detention camps in Nauru and Manus Island keeps escalating, with the bearers of our government’s harsh policies being the bodies of the people who have been held captive for nearly six years. As a lawyer, I’ve seen people literally crushed by these policies to the point where they urgently require medical evacuation to Australia in order to save their life. Only once court proceedings are threatened, filed or fought, have people been afforded the basic right to adequate healthcare in a safe environment.

It should not take legal intervention for doctor’s orders to be followed. That’s why the home affairs legislation amendment (miscellaneous measures) bill 2018, introduced by Kerryn Phelps last year and supported by the crossbench, ALP and the Greens, is such crucial, life-saving legislation.

Rather than leaving medical transfers in the hands of lawyers, bureaucrats and judges, the bill compels the minister to promptly evacuate a person on the recommendation of two qualified medical practitioners. The minister still has the power to deem the transfer unnecessary and can veto any transfer on national security grounds. An independent health assessment panel, comprised of experts nominated by Australia’s peak medical bodies, would have the power to review refusals in each case, providing a safeguard against requests as well as poor ministerial decision-making.

The people I work with can testify to the delays, excuses and arbitrariness of a system set up to wait for people to be at their very lowest, sickest and most vulnerable point before they receive care. It’s not humane, it’s not dignified and it’s not safe.

This week the government proposed an alternative solution in an attempt to prevent an embarrassing loss on the floor of the parliament. From what we know, this is just window dressing on a broken and deeply flawed system. A medical panel handpicked by the minister, whose advice can be overruled by the minister for any reason, is not a recipe for accountability or transparency and will do absolutely nothing to save lives.

Death is not a hypothetical in this situation. Last year, an epileptic man on Manus Island and a young newlywed in Nauru both lost their lives because they did not receive appropriate medical treatment, joining 10 others who died before them. Tragedies happen when we don’t act.

There is an urgent medical crisis on Nauru and Manus, and it needs an urgent medical solution, not a political one.

Morrison played every trick in the book to delay passing this bill last year. Next week it’s up to the Labor party, the Centre Alliance, the Greens and a coalition of independents led by Phelps to ensure Morrison stops playing politics with people’s lives once and for all.

In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. In the UK Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at

Freya Dinshaw is a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre.

Photo credit: Matthew Abbott