Banned from treat­ing asy­lum seek­ers

Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders or­dered to cease treat­ment as hope­less­ness and de­spair spreads through camp

The Northern Advocate - - World -

Hu­man rights groups have warned that a men­tal-health cri­sis on the Pa­cific is­land of Nauru is ex­plod­ing as hun­dreds of asy­lum seek­ers stranded there lose hope of mak­ing it to their in­tended des­ti­na­tion: Aus­tralia.

De­spite those con­cerns, how­ever, Nau­ruan au­thor­i­ties de­manded that staff from Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders cease their op­er­a­tions on the is­land.

The group, which pro­vided psy­chi­atric and psy­cho­log­i­cal as­sis­tance to both the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion and asy­lum seek­ers, said the de­ci­sion will jeop­ar­dise the safety of many pa­tients who re­lied on its doc­tors for ur­gent treat­ment.

At least 78 peo­ple un­der the group’s care have con­tem­plated sui­cide or “en­gaged in self-harm or at­tempted sui­cide”, Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders — which goes by its French ini­tials, MSF, for Medecins Sans Fron­tieres — said in a state­ment.

In 2013, Aus­tralia be­gan hold­ing mi­grants and asy­lum seek­ers who try to reach the coun­try by boat in off­shore de­ten­tion.

About 900 asy­lum seek­ers are now on Nauru, some of whom have been there as long as five years.

Many, in­clud­ing chil­dren, suf­fer from se­vere men­tal-health con­di­tions, in­clud­ing de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety, doc­tors and hu­man rights groups say.

In a tele­phone call with The

Wash­ing­ton Post yes­ter­day, MSF hu­man­i­tar­ian af­fairs ad­viser Aure­lie Pon­thieu said the de­mand for men­tal­health re­sources on Nauru was so high that the group had a wait­ing list of about 100 peo­ple seek­ing con­sul­ta­tion.

Pon­thieu said the lo­cal hos­pi­tal lacked re­sources to care for large num­bers of men­tally ill peo­ple.

And while some doc­tors are con­tracted by the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment to treat pa­tients there, she said, MSF is con­cerned that those “ser­vices are in­suf­fi­cient”. Asy­lum seek­ers “don’t trust any­thing pro­vided by the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment be­cause the gov­ern­ment has put them there in the first place,” she said.

The group has pro­vided sup­port on Nauru since Novem­ber 2017.

Aus­tralian Home Af­fairs Min­is­ter Peter Dut­ton told the Guardian that MSF was “in­vited onto Nauru by their gov­ern­ment to pro­vide med­i­cal ser­vices to lo­cal peo­ple in Nauru,” say­ing the group was “never con­tracted, as I’m ad­vised, to pro­vide med­i­cal sup­port to trans­fer­ees on Nauru”. But Pon­thieu called that claim “com­pletely in­cor­rect” and said MSF had a mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing with the Nau­ruan gov­ern­ment that clearly stated it was to pro­vide ser­vices to asy­lum seek­ers liv­ing there.

Asy­lum seek­ers stuck on Nauru ar­rived “with a cer­tain amount of trauma”, Pon­thieu said, re­fer­ring to con­flicts or hu­man rights abuses they may have been ex­posed to in their home coun­tries.

Once on Nauru, some of them have been sex­u­ally and phys­i­cally abused, she said.

Un­cer­tainty and hope­less­ness also have set in among this group af­ter year of hop­ing to reach Aus­tralia.

“In the last month, we’ve seen peo­ple de­te­ri­o­rat­ing quite se­ri­ously,” she said.

“We had chil­dren as young as nine years old say­ing they want to die. We have seen ado­les­cents suf­fer­ing from res­ig­na­tion syn­drome.”

Fol­low­ing the hu­man­i­tar­ian group’s forced de­par­ture from Nauru, MSF has called for the im­me­di­ate evac­u­a­tion of all asy­lum seek­ers and refugees from Nauru and an end to Aus­tralia’s off­shore de­ten­tion pol­icy.

The Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment could not be reached for com­ment, but a spokesman for the De­part­ment of Home Af­fairs told The Wash­ing­ton Post in an email last month that Aus­tralia pro­vides sig­nif­i­cant sup­port to the Gov­ern­ment of Nauru to pro­vide wel­fare and health ser­vices, in­clud­ing men­tal health care, ed­u­ca­tion and to sup­port law and or­der.

But MSF said the plight of fam­i­lies stranded on Nauru is only get­ting worse.

“I’ve talked to fam­i­lies who said they have to mon­i­tor chil­dren all the time so they don’t kill them­selves,” Pon­thieu said. “It’s an aw­ful sit­u­a­tion. It’s one of the most dra­matic sit­u­a­tions I’ve seen in a mi­gra­tion con­text. It’s very heart­break­ing.”


MSF staff have been pro­vid­ing psy­chi­atric and psy­cho­log­i­cal as­sis­tance to both the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion and asy­lum seek­ers.

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