Children in detention - Senator Statement

Wednesday 17 October

The situation for refugee children on Nauru and Manus Island is now critical. Reports this morning that the chief medical officer on Nauru is being deported demonstrates just how dire things have gotten. For humanity's sake, we do need to come together to get these children out of detention so that they can get the medical care that they need. On top of that, the government needs to accept New Zealand's ongoing and generous offer of resettlement. Over the weekend, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UNHCR, urged the Morrison government to take immediate action to address a collapsing health situation for refugees and asylum seekers in PNG and Nauru.

On Monday, the Prime Minister received a letter signed by nearly 6,000 Australian doctors, demanding the removal of sick children in detention from Nauru. AMA paediatric representative Dr Paul Bauert, who has treated patients on Nauru, described the situation as unconscionable and something that could have so easily been avoided. He said:

This is the only situation I’ve come across where it is deliberate government policy which is causing the pain and suffering of these children.

If the Morrison government won't listen to these voices and take immediate action to ensure the 77 children and their families on Nauru receive adequate primary and mental health care, then the parliament must act. With 78 cases of attempted suicide and self-harm on Nauru within the past year alone, and 12 people dead since 2014, the situation in offshore detention is truly disastrous.

Yesterday I met with Thomas Albrecht, Regional Representative of the UNHCR. As part of his duties, he travels regularly to Manus Island and Nauru. He described to me how, on his last visit to Nauru, he was so distraught to witness little girls lying catatonic in the dark.

These are children—children who, with their families, sought our protection. Under international law, we have a duty of care to provide that protection. But instead this government has failed these children for five years of their lives now, leaving them psychologically damaged and severely traumatised. It should never have come to this. As each day goes by, the situation seriously worsens for these children. What few services they once received are now slowly being taken away. Doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres were ejected from Nauru last week. Now, with reports of the government's appointed chief medical officer on Nauru being deported this afternoon, the sense of urgency is even greater.

Reflecting the longstanding poor healthcare situation under this government, last month more asylum seekers had to be medically evacuated from Nauru than in the previous two years combined. If a medical practitioner recommends the transfer of a vulnerable child requiring treatment, it should not require a legal challenge to compel this government to meet its obligations. Labor remains deeply concerned about these events. While we welcome the Prime Minister's—sudden and unexplained—interest in the New Zealand resettlement offer, more must be done for the rights of the child. That is why Labor is committed to establishing an independent children's advocate to ensure the rights of children in immigration are protected.

Labor is currently in the process of drafting legislation to bring sick refugee children to Australia for treatment. I understand a number of crossbench senators in the other place have also given notice of a bill, and now even some government members are finally speaking out. But this has all gone on for far too long. There is no-one in this place, surely, that can deny that. We in this parliament must work together to end this trauma being inflicted on these children.

It is time for all of us to take urgent action to ensure that no child suffers in detention for one minute longer, and that no refugee child goes without the medical care that they need. I think when we've got the voices of some 6,000 medical professionals in Australia calling on this parliament to act, and calling on this government to do what it is elected to do: to stand up and ensure that the lives of these children are protected—children that sought our protection in the first place—then we cannot just sit here and do nothing. We must act. No matter the different ways we can get to the same conclusion, I think we all know that the solution is that we bring the children out of the misery that they currently find themselves in—in needing that urgent medical care—and that is the best outcome. The sooner that this parliament resolves this issue, the better, not just for those children but for humanity's sake, and for our nation's sake, because everyone is watching. They're watching the fact that—in this government's name, and in this country's name—we are leaving these vulnerable children in a terrible and perilous situation; terrible in the sense that I hope nothing happens that might result in the end of their lives.