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Monday, 3 December 2018
Page: 12170


Dr PHELPS (Wentworth) (11:16): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

There is an urgent medical crisis in Australia's offshore detention centres, particularly for those children who have been held on Nauru for as long as five years.

The Migration Amendment (Urgent Medical Treatment) Bill 2018 would address this crisis by allowing for the temporary transfer of people held in offshore processing centres to be brought to Australia for medical assessment and treatment.

The medical crisis in offshore detention has been worsening for a number of years, and today Medecins Sans Frontieres has released a report documenting extreme mental health suffering in offshore detention. A dossier of leaked materials in August this year uncovered shocking signs of medical neglect in Australia's offshore processing facilities, precipitated and exacerbated by incidences of violence, sexual assault, degrading treatment and self-harm.

There are currently 1,224 people detained on the islands of Manus and Nauru, including, according to the latest reports, 12 children as well as pregnant women and unaccompanied minors. They have all been held in offshore detention for as long as five years. Since the #KidsOffNauru campaign began on 20 August this year, some children and their families have been transferred to Australia for medical treatment. This has occurred as a result of political pressure or at the behest of Australian courts, not through a proper process for medical transfer. A clinically led process for medical transfer of these sick asylum seekers and their families must be put in place.

In relation to Nauru, medical experts who have worked in the detention centre there have issued clear warnings about the escalating medical crisis. Three former medical staff employed on Nauru blew the whistle on this crisis, warning that medical conditions are so critical that a child may die.

Yet two months ago, Medecins Sans Frontieres was abruptly ordered to leave Nauru, depriving its patients on the island of specialist health services. MSF's report into conditions on Nauru, released this morning, is a shocking indictment of Australia's treatment of asylum seekers. It states that the mental health suffering on Nauru is among the worst MSF has ever seen, including in projects providing care for victims of torture.

That description is borne out by a huge number of independent accounts of medical neglect, in some cases resulting in death, in Australia's offshore detention centres.

There have been recent reports of a dramatic escalation of children locked up in Nauru with symptoms of traumatic withdrawal syndrome. This is a life-threatening condition where children withdraw from school and play, stop interacting and eventually stop eating and drinking. Parents are becoming desperate for help as they try to force food and water into the limp bodies of their children. The MSF report found that children as young as nine have had suicidal thoughts, committed acts of self-harm or attempted suicide. I understand there are entire families struggling through prolonged trauma, without adequate medical and psychological treatment, facing the obstructiveness of the Australian government and Border Force as doctors' recommendations for overseas medical treatment to save their children's lives have been blocked. These children are suffering not just from the trauma they have experienced as asylum seekers and refugees but also from a deep sense of hopelessness caused by them and their families being confined indefinitely. It is appalling that the Australian government has pushed children to such despair, to the point where they've lost their will to live, and it is concerning that the Nauru government has responded to such a crisis by removing a vital non-political organisation such as Medecins Sans Frontieres from Nauru.

On Manus Island as well the situation is critical. A report released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2016 found that the men in Manus Island detention centre were suffering from some of the highest rates of depression, post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders in the world. Existing facilities on Manus Island are not adequate for addressing such a crisis. There is a local hospital but it lacks resources and staff. The number of mental health professionals supporting the men in Papua New Guinea has halved since the beginning of the year. We have seen 12 people die in offshore detention centres over the last five years. I refuse to see another person die in Australian funded offshore detention. We have a legal and moral responsibility to act, and we must act urgently.

In a letter delivered to parliament week, 12 Australian medical colleges and 6,000 individual Australian doctors implored parliamentary representatives to urgently transfer sick children to Australia for medical treatment and to address the escalating medical crisis in Nauru and on Manus Island. I have listened to these calls. In Australia clinical need, not politics, should determine access to care. This approach should apply equally on Manus Island and Nauru. As every parent knows, if a child needs urgent medical support, access to care must be determined by a doctor not a public servant.

I'm introducing this bill to address the urgent medical crisis unfolding on our watch and to follow the expert advice from Australian doctors. These doctors have overwhelmingly requested the immediate transfer of all refugee and asylum seeker children from Nauru to Australia and the provision of appropriate medical treatment to everyone in offshore detention. The bill provides for the Australian government to immediately transfer all refugee and asylum seeker children from Nauru to Australia for medical treatment. The bill will also enact a proper process for medical treatment ensuring that, when two treating doctors recommend the temporary transfer of any person in offshore detention to Australia for treatment, their orders are followed. Those who would say that by introducing this bill we are letting the people smugglers win, or inviting a flood of boats, should consider that the bill does not compel the permanent resettlement of refugees or even their permanent transfer to Australia. It does not end offshore detention. It does not contradict either of the major parties' stated policies on offshore detention. It simply ensures doctors' orders are followed in relation to the treatment of sick people in offshore detention.

Regardless of opinions on offshore processing, Australia must not fail to provide critically ill people in its care —in particular, children—with urgent medical treatment, especially when the Australian government policy of indefinite detention has caused, or seriously exacerbated, physical and psychiatric illness. I will continue to work with the parliament in having this legislation passed, and, if any amendments are made, I will update this chamber accordingly. It is unacceptable to continue to ignore the medical crisis that has emerged through the lack of appropriate care and the failure of the Australian government to transfer children and adults to Australia when doctors have so clearly recommended it do so. We are better than that.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Rob Mitchell ): I thank the member. Is the motion seconded?