Medical students and professionals are taking inspiring action, in defiance of the Australian government, to assert that health is a human right as the crisis on Manus Island and Nauru rapidly worsens, writes Zebedee Parkes.
“We have a system of detention for people arriving by boat which is deliberately designed to cause harm,” psychiatrist Dr Peter Young told a rally of hundreds of medical students in Sydney on April 7.
Young was the director of mental health services for International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) on Manus Island and Nauru from 2011 to 2014. Horrified by what he saw, especially the medical neglect involved in the death of Hamid Khazaei, he spoke out. He was soon removed from his post.
The day after the rally, a refugee on Manus Island was severely wounded when he was stabbed by locals with a screwdriver as they stole his mobile phone. When he was taken to IHMS for urgent medical care, he was turned away and told to go to the under-resourced local hospital.
When he did not receive the necessary medical treatment there, his friends on Manus Island contacted Dr Berger from Doctors for Refugees who provided emergency assistance over the phone.
If the man dies from not being able to access adequate medical care quickly enough, he will not be the first.
Berger told the ABC: "The scene is set for more acute medical catastrophes, and it's inevitable that that's going to happen because there is not adequate care for these men."
In the past few months the situation has become worse than ever with the withdrawal of medical services, including abolishing the trauma and counselling services and forcing people to use underfunded PNG hospitals, which has increased tensions with locals.
This is deliberately creating conflict between refugees and locals. As Behrouz Boochani told Green Left Weekly in September last year “The Manusian people don’t want us in their community but both governments don’t care, the local people want to send a message to the government through beating the refugees.”
One man on Manus Island summed up the situation late last year, saying: “Australia is killing us slowly, slowly. It's very painful … It will be better they shoot us. We will make a line and they can shoot us together.”
In January, a 42-year-old Iranian man went on hunger strike after been informed his medical condition could not be treated in PNG and Australia refused to bring him here for treatment. He was tied down to a hospital bed in Port Moresby and force fed to break his hunger strike.
Other refugees have been offered healthcare in Australia — but only if they leave their families behind, possibly to never see them again.
For many people accessing medication they have been prescribed is a struggle. It is very expensive from the local pharmacy and money is difficult to come by.
The facilities people are being forced to live in on Manus Island are overcrowded and have serious hygiene issues. Toilets often stop working and running water is infrequent.
Now private health contractor IHMS has announced it is pulling out of Manus Island in April and the government seemingly has no plan to replace them. The medical situation is only expected to get worse for the several hundred men trapped there.
Medical students protest
This lack of medical care and forcing people to live in conditions that lead to harm meant medical students felt they had to take action.
Rally organiser Carrie Lee told GLW: “We as medical students care about the health of refugees and we know that detention harms health.
“We are marching to say that these harmful policies must end because detention is intrinsically harmful to health and especially bad for mental health, so we need to keep advocating for this until all people are out of detention.”
The rally was organised over seven months and built by medical students talking to fellow students after working long shifts. Students came from across NSW, including a contingent from the University of Newcastle.
For many students it was their first ever rally as they marched through the city in doctor’s coats, holding hand-painted placards. Chants of “Oi Dutton we’re talking to you, detention harms health on Manus and Nauru” and “1,2,3,4, health is a human right for all” filled the air.
In the lead-up to the rally, students took to social media to say why they were marching. They said it was because they are sick of hearing about suicide attempts and people being denied access to healthcare; the deplorable conditions; children in detention. Their duty as future healthcare professionals is to do no harm to patients and advocate for their health needs, because medical students are taught to care for all patients regardless of who they are and healthcare is a human right.
Lee said: “As medical students we are part of the future health profession and one day we will see and look after many of these refugees in our own clinics.
“It is Australia’s responsibility to look after their welfare and that’s not being done at the moment. These refugees are within our duty of care and we think it is our responsibility to make sure their basic human rights and health care are looked after.
“Doctors and medical students have spoken up about this issue before — but still nothing has been done.”
Doctors’ support for refugees
Medical students are walking in the footsteps of a long history of medical professionals taking action in support of refugees.
Doctors spoke out about the conditions in detention, risking jail under the Border Force Act that, until an exception was put in place after public protest in 2016, did not allow medical professionals to speak out about the conditions, including reporting sexual abuse of children by guards.
In 2015, hundreds of medical professionals protested in dozens of locations across Australia, from Broome to Bendigo, in opposition to the provisions of the Border Force Act.
The next year medical professionals stared down Border Force and refused to discharge Baby Asha from the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane when she was at risk of been sent to Nauru, becoming the heart of the “let them stay” movement.
Then medical professionals organised and led a national day of action for refugee rights under the banner Doctors4Refugees.
In November last year, when the Australian government was closing down Manus Island detention centre and removing medical support, leading doctors asked to be allowed to go to Manus Island to provide pro bono medical treatment. The Australian government refused.
Medical students will continue protesting. Lee urged people to stay active: “Most importantly go and be active as citizens: call your MP, write letters to them, say that you oppose detention, ask them to do more about this issue — because unless we speak up, they are not going to act.”
The refugee movement can take inspiration from the fact that a group of committed students, studying for one of the most intense degrees, managed to engage dozens of new people in the campaign and convince them to take to the streets to say: “Refugee health is under attack. What do we do? Stand up fight back.”
The day following the rally, Aziz held up a sign on Manus Island: “To all the medical students in Australia. Thank you very much for your solidarity & support. You’re the future doctors of Australia & world. Much love from the refugees on Manus & Nauru. Aziz.”