MSF says Peter Dut­ton wrong to claim it wasn't con­tracted to treat Nauru refugees

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - He­len David­son and Gareth Hutchens

The home af­fairs min­is­ter, Peter Dut­ton, has sought to bat away ques­tions about the men­tal health cri­sis on Nauru by wrongly say­ing Médecins Sans Fron­tières was not con­tracted to look after refugees and asy­lum seek­ers.

Dut­ton was ad­dress­ing the Na­tional Press Club in Can­berra on Wed­nes­day, just hours after MSF con­firmed the Nau­ruan govern­ment had forced it to leave the is­land, end­ing its psy­cho­log­i­cal and psy­chi­atric health ser­vices.

“[MSF] were in­vited onto Nauru by their govern­ment to pro­vide med­i­cal ser­vices to lo­cal peo­ple in Nauru,” Dut­ton said when asked by Guardian Aus­tralia about his re­sponse to Nauru’s ac­tions.

“They were up­set at the high level of med­i­cal sup­port be­ing pro­vided to trans­fer­ees on the is­land. MFS were never con­tracted, as I’m ad­vised, to pro­vide med­i­cal sup­port to trans­fer­ees on Nauru.”

He later re­peated that “MFS were not in­volved in the pro­vi­sion of med­i­cal ser­vices to trans­fer­ees” and de­scribed claims to the con­trary as “pro­pa­ganda”.

How­ever, a spokes­woman for MSF told Guardian Aus­tralia its agree­ment with the Nau­ruan govern­ment was made “un­der the premise of a ‘one door for all pol­icy’ from day one”.

The mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing be­tween the Nau­ruan govern­ment and MSF ex­plic­itly states:

In his an­swers Dut­ton caveated that his re­sponse was as he was ad­vised, be­cause the “day to day man­age­ment was with [now im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter David] Cole­man”.

MSF be­gan work­ing on Nauru in Novem­ber 2017, when Dut­ton had been im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter for more than three years. He held the port­fo­lio un­til Au­gust this year.

On Wed­nes­day MSF said it ex­ited the is­land con­cerned for the pa­tients left be­hind in a sit­u­a­tion it de­scribed as “be­yond des­per­ate”.

For sev­eral months there have been re­ports of chil­dren suf­fer­ing res­ig­na­tion syn­drome, a po­ten­tially fa­tal re­ac­tion to ex­treme trauma, as well as con­tin­u­ing in­stances of self-harm, at­tempted sui­cide and sui­cide. Dozens have been trans­ferred to Aus­tralia for crit­i­cal care.

There have also been re­cent re­ports from is­land sources of Nau­ruan au­thor­i­ties threat­en­ing to ar­rest any­one who at­tempts sui­cide.

Health and wel­fare sources have re­ported the sup­ported ac­com­mo­da­tion is full, but some par­ents are be­ing warned that if they sought to bring their chil­dren to the Nauru hos­pi­tal they could be ac­cused of ne­glect and their chil­dren taken away.

As well as MSF’s forced de­par­ture, Dut­ton was asked about Nauru’s re­cent at­tempts to block med­i­cal trans­fers or­dered by Aus­tralia’s fed­eral court.

He ac­cused Guardian Aus­tralia of only telling “half the story” and said both the Aus­tralian govern­ment and Nau­ruan govern­ment com­plied with fed­eral court or­ders.

Last month a fed­eral court judge reis­sued a trans­fer or­der after Nauru re­fused to al­low an air am­bu­lance to land, ef­fec­tively plac­ing the Com­mon­wealth in breach of the orig­i­nal or­der.

In Septem­ber Com­mon­wealth lawyers told the court there were “on­go­ing is­sues” with Nauru block­ing trans­fers, but to defy them would threaten the na­tions’ “work­ing re­la­tion­ship”.

“At the mo­ment, we have peo­ple that have been trans­ferred from Nauru to Aus­tralia for med­i­cal as­sis­tance,” said Dut­ton on Wed­nes­day.

“Roughly about 200 chil­dren who have come down and I’ve made a num­ber of de­ci­sions over re­cent years to bring those peo­ple from Nauru to Aus­tralia for med­i­cal as­sis­tance or third coun­tries oth­er­wise.”

Last month Guardian Aus­tralia re­vealed the govern­ment spent more than $320,000 last fi­nan­cial year re­spond­ing to fed­eral court ap­pli­ca­tions for ur­gent med­i­cal trans­fers. The fig­ure for this year, dur­ing which the num­ber of ap­pli­ca­tions has in­creased, is not known.

On Wed­nes­day Dut­ton re­peated a pre­vi­ous state­ment that he would bring all peo­ple from Nauru to Aus­tralia to­mor­row “in a heart­beat” if he could.

“But if I did that, I would restart boats and then you would be ask­ing me of the chil­dren drown­ing at sea.”

Pho­to­graph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Peter Dut­ton said he was ad­vised MFS was never con­tracted to pro­vide med­i­cal sup­port to asy­lum seek­ers on Nauru.

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