STEPHANIE DOWRICK: Free the suffering children on Nauru – now.

Sep 21, 2018

Most readers of “Pearls and Irritations” will be at least somewhat sympathetic to the plight (what an inadequate word) of the refugee families on Nauru. You won’t need me to remind you that those families sought asylum because they were fleeing violence, war, death. You won’t either need me to remind you that they have now been held in detention for more than five years. There is much talk that refugees on Nauru are now “free” on the island. This is nonsense. The truth is they have been systematically deprived of community, purpose, future and hope – of anything resembling a normal life.  And it is not just the adults who are suffering from extreme stress and despair, it is also – inevitably – the children. This is not just child abuse in our name and on our watch, it is torment of the worst and most unnecessary kind.

In recent months – but only after strenuous efforts including costly appeals to the courts and massive resistance from Minister Dutton’s Border Protection lawyers – a significant number of critically ill children have been removed from Nauru to get the medical care they need. In every case, these removals have been delayed until they are literally matters of life and death. As one very senior doctor said to me, “It is a miracle we’ve had no deaths of children yet.” However, more than a dozen adults have died, either by suicide or avoidable illnesses on Manus or Nauru. Those deaths happen under the watch of the Australian government. So does this squalid misery affecting children, adults, all ages, at risk for a lifetime.

My involvement with this matter is close. Through my paediatrician/activist husband, I am witnessing doctors attempting to support an insupportable situation from Australia on a daily basis. Because the identifying details of any refugees cannot be revealed, I can only say that the stories I know to be true are heartbreaking: that they involve babies as well as the older children. I myself have Australian grandchildren aged three and seven. My husband has a little granddaughter who is not yet one. I see the light in their eyes, their enthusiasm for life, their optimism, energy and resilience.  The story for refugee families held in detention could not be more different. By the age of eight, children on Nauru are already emphatically stating that they will choose death rather than indefinite detention in a highly controlled, cruelly petty, humiliating existence that the Australian government has ordered, paid for, and insists upon prolonging.

Even the children who are not explicitly suicidal are suffering extreme physical, emotional and spiritual trauma from prolonged suffering, and so, of course, are their parents. Do we have to be a parent to imagine the particular agony of believing you are bringing your children from danger to safety, risking your life to do so, only to find that you are to be held hostage indefinitely, apparently to     dissuade others from seeking safety in a similar way. Not only that, you are pilloried and dehumanised as “boat people”, “queue jumpers”, “illegals”: anything but the desperate, suffering people that you are.

For several years Australian doctors have been at the forefront of protest about the Government’s rhetoric and actions towards asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru. Doctors have widely seen this as a most urgent humanitarian issue, which clearly it is. They have also, through the Australian Medical Association and also through , made repeated appeals to Government on the basis that this is a most urgent health issue. The provision of health services in both detention centres is handled by IHMS (a for-profit group). Requests to over-see this by a delegation from the AMA, willing and ready to travel to Manus and Nauru, have been repeatedly refused.

This week, the new President of the AMA, Tony Bartone, issued the most urgent and explicit request from the AMA to date, urging Prime Minister Morrison to remove all the remaining children and their families from Nauru, preferably bringing them to Australia for the care they so urgently need. He has also asked that the Prime Minister “facilitate access to Nauru for a delegation of Australian doctors to assess the health and wellbeing of people in detention.This is hugely significant. Australian doctors are saying we cannot be party to or complicit with this on-going, worsening crisis, most especially as it affects children.

Dr Bartone makes it clear that he is responding to a groundswell of concern and agitation across the AMA membership and the medical profession more generally, noting – as all the doctors directly involved are also noting, “…the escalation in reports of catastrophic mental and physical health conditions being experienced by the asylum seekers, especially children.”

What can you do?  What can I do? This is a crossroads moment. It is just possible that for the most cynical of reasons, Prime Minister Morrison may wish to show his “Christian” credentials and suffer the little children to come to Australia. It was chilling, though, to discover from New York Times journalist Maureen Dowd’s column on Morrison that he has on his desk ornaments that celebrate “stopping the boats”. That Morrison sees no way to “stop boats”, nor to provide adequate processing on or off-shore without holding those processed refugees in indefinite detention, is nightmarish – yet it must not be defeating.

As I write this, some of the doctors most directly involved are personally informing politicians of the health consequences of inaction – particularly on the children and their families (but we know it is disastrous on Manus also).  The moral consequences for this nation are as serious. What we can do, and do repeatedly, is inform politicians of our care. They will respond positively when NOT DOING SO will cost them votes. Perhaps some of you have direct contacts, even powerful ones? Use them. Please, please use them. We all at least have a voice, a pen, access to our communities, neighbours, and to the very real power of social media. We have the choice and the chance to express our concern in our own ways. We can actively and immediately support the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre or World Vision – who made this plea just days ago:

For me, the most fundamental spiritual practice has always been not prayer – although I deeply value that – but to speak up for those in our human family who are silenced. What a privilege it is that we can speak. And, this time, let’s ensure that enough of the politicians and their advisers will have sufficient courage and heart not just to hear, but to listen.

Reverend Dr Stephanie Dowrick is a long-time social commentator and writer, as well as being an interfaith minister. You can follow her on her public Facebook page: Or on Twitter where she writes: “Essential that we are inspired as well as outraged. Inspiration takes us further – and offers hope.”





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