The fate of asylum seeker children brought to Australia for medical treatment hangs in the balance as they await a High Court decision that could change their lives.
Doctors say the children should not be returned to offshore detention, and that it is akin to torture.
One 5-year-old boy currently in Australia for treatment was reportedly raped on Nauru, and is terrified of going back.
Doctors and nurses fed up with Australia’s asylum seeker policy are speaking out about conditions, risking possible jail time.
The medical professionals, who have worked at immigration detention facilities and have decades of experience as frontline health workers, say the Australian public would be horrified to learn the conditions children are kept in.
They’ve made a series of videos they hope will force more attention onto the issue.
“When I went to Nauru just for five days to see children, I knew what I was expecting to see and I was still horrified by it,” David Isaacs, a paediatrician at the refugee clinic at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead says on one of the videos.
“I think prolonged detention without knowing what’s going to happen to you is a form of torture,” he says.
Watch Professor Isaacs speak about his concerns (post continues after video):
“It’s a deliberate harm and it’s torture. And there’s a real viciousness about that that is incredibly worrying. That’s not what you expect of a caring country, of a county that prides itself on being civilised.
“The way we treat asylum seekers is truly reprehensible. It’s shameful and we should be ashamed of that. And I am ashamed of it. It makes me shamed to be Australian and I’m proud to be Australian generally. I don’t want to be treating people in that way,” he says.
Professor Isaacs has been an outspoken opponent of the Federal Government’s asylum seeker policy since spending five days visiting off shore detention facilities.
In 2015 he risked sanctions under the Government’s tough Border Force Act to speak out about what he had seen. In these videos, Professor Isaacs and his colleagues do this again.
He says the government wants to stop discussion and reporting on what’s happening in detention because it is ashamed.
“This secrecy is obviously deliberate and that means the Government is ashamed of what they are doing and they should be ashamed of what they’re doing.”
Karen Zwi, who also works as a paediatrician at the refugee clinic told Mamamia that the latest campaign was borne out of desperation.
“I have been trying in many different ways to get the message across that detention is harmful and damages children who could otherwise become resilient and resourceful adults,” Associate Professor Zwi says.
Professor Zwi talks about the impact of detention on small children (post continues after video):
“I have been on government advisory committees, I have written policy documents, I have published in scientific medical journals as well as in the public press, I have given many talks.
“Nonetheless children are still locked up and I feel that my professional advice and clinical expertise is not being listened to.”
This helplessness is the catalyst for the videos, which it is hoped will help the public see what is going on. The group have posted the interviews on their Facebook page.
“Many of us feel we have no choice but to speak out to draw attention to the immense harm being done to children, some of whom are newborn babies,” she said.
“The children and their families have come to us seeking our protection. To respond by locking them up is not only cruel but it is degrading to us as a nation to behave in this way.”
Hasantha Gunasekera, a general paediatrician at the refugee clinic, said that when he went to Nauru to provide medical services he was unable to visit his patients in their living quarters.
“They said no you can’t go because this is a sensitive issue for the government. So you have medical organisations not looking after the best interests of the patient but looking after the best interests of the government,” he said.
Watch Hasantha Gunasekera talk about his concerns (post continues after video):
The doctors are frustrated that despite thousands of health professionals signing a petition demanding the Government remove children from detention, they remain there.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told ABC Lateline that the Government would listen to professional medical advise about individual cases, but that Australia’s policy was clear.
“The Government’s been very clear about the fact, and we remain absolutely resolute, that if you seek to come to Australia by boat we’re not going to allow you to settle in this country,” he said.
The High Court decision could see up to 160 adults, 37 babies and 54 other children sent back to offshore detention.
Alanna Maycock, a paediatric refugee health nurse, says she was horrified when she visited Nauru.
“I went to Nauru with no agenda. Literally as a nurse from a refugee clinic here in Sydney to go and treat children, and see children, not in your wildest dreams do you expect to see people physically abused in front of your eyes,” she says on one of the videos.
“I was only there for five days. I can’t imagine what is happening to the minds of those that have been there for years.”
Children currently spend on average 417 days in immigration detention.
Watch Alanna Maycock talk about her visit to Nauru (post continues after video):
“We signed a contract to say we wouldn’t disclose anything we saw in Nauru, but we felt that we had a duty of care for these patients and I’ve always been trained and taught that if you see anything that affects the health of your patients then you have a duty to report that and speak about it.”
They are speaking out now.