High Court says Nauru legal as doctors risk jail time to reveal conditions

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Protesters outside Villawood detention centre in 2014. PHOTO: Kate Ausburn, CC by 2.0

Six paediatricians have risked jail time by revealing the conditions for young children on Nauru and Christmas Island to the media, violating a gag law that was the subject of sizeable protests on the part of doctors, nurses and social workers when it was introduced last year.

The doctors spoke to the ABC’s PM program yesterday in the lead up to a High Court ruling, handed down around four hours ago, that the government was operating within the constitution in operating offshore detention centres.

Before the ruling, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton flagged his intention to return 160 adults, 37 babies and 54 children back to Nauru, who were received on the mainland for medical treatment, including a five-year-old boy allegedly raped on the island.

Sydney paediatrician Hasantha Gunasekera told the program that he had been horrified at the “mental deterioration” of children which he saw there, describing a “catastrophic” situation of violence, behaviour disorders, outbursts and cutting (self-harm).

“We see very young children who just can’t take it anymore, saying things like, ‘I may as well just jump off the roof. There’s no point anymore,’” Dr Gunasekera said.

“And I had one parent say to me, ‘I brought my kids here for them to be safe, not to learn how to commit suicide’.

“And what do you say to a parent like that?”

Dr Karen Zwi, who cares for the children transferred to Australia, including the five-year-old boy, also spoke to the program, saying his alleged attacker was still at large.

“Like many other children who are very distressed, he regressed, he began bed-wetting, he was anxious, he became very concerned about his mother’s well being,” she said.

“He actually began to self-harm, as I’ve seen several other children do as well, and eventually he was transferred over to the mainland for treatment …

“His greatest fear is returning to Nauru. That is a huge fear hanging over him.”

The program also spoke to one of the female asylum seekers who could be sent back to Nauru, a woman they named Asseya who said she had fled her country to escape human traffickers and who spoke of the toll of uncertainty during her time on the mainland.

“I’m not working, I’m not allowed to. I’m not allowed to study,” Asseya said.

“I live in the community, I’m free, but at the same time, the last thing they said to me was, ‘we can send you back to detention at any time’.”

Minister Dutton is yet to comment on today’s High Court ruling but the advocacy group Asylum Seeker Resource Centre took to Facebook to express its disappointment “that the High Court upholds (the) Australian Government’s right to send refugees to offshore prison on Nauru”.

“It’s up to us the people now,” the post reads. “Snap Actions across Australia to demand ‪(Malcolm) ‎Turnbull let the 37 babies and 267 vulnerable people stay.”

The ABC’s full report is available here.