'These hellholes should be closed'

November 12, 2015
Nauru detention centre.

Walk Together marches were held in cities and regional centres around Australia on October 31 as a celebration of diversity.

The aim of the marches was to present a picture to Australia's political leaders and media of a different Australia — one that is known for its compassion and generosity. Caroline de Costa gave this speech at the Cairns rally.

* * *

I've been asked to say a few words about my personal experience of asylum seekers — in particular my experience of their healthcare. I am a doctor, a gynaecologist, and in this role I worked on Nauru in the early years of this century. I worked for AusAid in the Nauru hospital and I also consulted in the detention centre called Topside.

Nauru is a very small island, only 21 square kilometres. It is almost on the Equator. There is a rim of fertile land around a central low plateau. Eighty per cent of this plateau is uninhabitable because of phosphate mining.

The population of Nauru is about 10,500, only about 1000 more than the population of Atherton. When I was there the Nauruan government was very unstable and corruption was rife, and this has become worse since the detention centre was reopened in 2013.

In 2013, I was invited to be on an Australian government committee overseeing healthcare for women asylum seekers. While I was thinking about whether I would do this I published an article in the Medical Journal of Australia that was critical of what I then knew about antenatal care for women in detention. I was rapidly uninvited off the committee.

So, I have not been back to Nauru but I have made several visits to Darwin detention centres over the past 2½years and I have been able to talk to women who have been sent to Darwin from Nauru to give birth or for other medical care. My knowledge of what happens to them has been gained from these often quite lengthy conversations.

Under the Howard government asylum seekers were accommodated on Nauru in pre-fabricated buildings, which did at least have air conditioning.

Currently they are in tents which are very hot and humid. They leak when it rains. Up to 22 people share a tent who are not necessarily from the same or related families or even speak the same language. Men, women and children are all in together.

There is no privacy. Toilet and washing facilities are far from the tents. Women and children fear having to go to the toilet at night, to the point of wetting the bed. When it rains mud pours across the floors. There are mice, cockroaches and scorpions running around.

Accommodation is being built, I have seen photos of the construction. It looks like a concentration camp.

Both security and healthcare are outsourced to large corporations, Transfield and IHMS, who make huge profits. Health professionals are on short contracts or fly in fly out. The antenatal care up to 32 weeks, when women are transferred to Australia, is way below what we regard as desirable for women resident in Australia. Nauru is 3300 km from Brisbane, a 4½hour flight. It can take up to 36 hours to transfer an “urgent” case to Brisbane.

But the worst aspect of detention on Nauru is the fact that it is indefinite and forever. The asylum seekers are in a helpless, hopeless situation. Moves into the community of Nauru make no difference to their daily lives apart from increasing the dangers of abuse and sexual assault for women and children especially. The result is a very high rate of depression and attempts at self-harm.

I want to say a little bit about the Somali woman, Abyan (not her real name), transferred from Nauru to Australia two weeks ago for an abortion, and then transferred back without the abortion. There have been a lot of accusations from the government of refugee advocates using her case for their own political purposes. I have been involved in providing medical advice for this woman although I have never met her. I propose simply to list some things about her that are incontrovertibly true.

She is from Somalia, one of the most dangerous places in the world, especially for a young woman. She fled Somalia when she was 15 after her entire family was killed when their house was bombed. She has had two children in the past five years who are not with her; we don't know if they are alive or dead. Despite all that has happened to her since, she is not seeking to return to Somalia — her life there was even worse than it is now.

She became pregnant on Nauru. She alleges she was raped but she will not identify her rapist. Two other women who have alleged rape and had these allegations supposedly investigated by Nauruan police have been accused of fabricating the stories.

It is not surprising that Abyan won't name her attacker.

Finally in the last week of October she was transferred back to Brisbane and is now, I believe, receiving high quality care. The minister for immigration [Peter Dutton] has said this was not because of lobbying by thousands of Australians, including, I'm sure, many of you here, nor was it because the UNHCR expressed grave concerns for her health.

I disagree. I think our continued protests have achieved results, and I think this is proof of our need to keep on doing this until the Nauru, Manus and Christmas Island detention centres are closed.

You will have seen in the news doctors standing up and protesting in several southern cities against continued detention and particularly against the detention of children. I am very proud of my colleagues.

You will also be aware of the Border Force legislation that prohibits doctors and other professionals working in detention centres from speaking out about abuses or other deficiencies they have observed there. I was happy to be one of the doctors who signed an open letter of opposition to this legislation when it was introduced in July this year

I was born in 1947, just after World War II in Sydney. I feel very fortunate to have been brought up in a safe, peaceful, democratic society and to have received free, high quality secular education. I am very aware that not all in our society have had these advantages and that is really why I am taking part in this event today. Asylum seekers are among the most marginalised people in our society today and those offshore are infinitely more so.

Everything I know about Nauru leads me to continue to lobby the government in any way I can to close these hellholes.

Using these people as an example to dissuade others from attempting to seek asylum in Australia contravenes numerous international treaties to which we are bound. It is cruel and inhumane and also futile. These camps should be closed and the people in them brought to Australia for resettlement.

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