MSF says Peter Dutton wrong to claim it wasn't contracted to treat Nauru refugees
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.”
Peter Dutton said he was advised MFS was never contracted to provide medical support to asylum seekers on Nauru.