Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019 Second Reading

Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019 Second Reading



Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019 Second Reading

24 JULY 2019


The Minister for Home Affairs – the Member for Dickson – cannot be trusted to look after the health of vulnerable people in Australia’s care. I’d like to talk about one story that illustrates why.

The story is set out in a detailed judgment of the Federal Court of Australia. The facts have not been disputed by the Minister for Home Affairs.

It is a desperately sad story, which I tell because it provides context to the bill now before the House. It is because of stories like the one that I am about to tell that we supported the Medevac laws, and it is why we still support them. There are many other stories like this one.

In January 2014, a mother, her young son, her adult son and her daughter-in-law were transferred to Nauru by the Australian Government. The family had attempted to make it to Australia by boat after fleeing persecution in Iran.

On 8 May 2018, after more than four years on Nauru, doctors employed by the Minister’s own Department assessed the mother’s risk of self-harm as “moderate”. When asked if she could keep herself safe, the mother told the doctors: “Of course. I have my sons”.

On 15 June 2018, after more four years in detention, the mother’s oldest son committed suicide. His wife – the mother’s daughter-in-law – found the body in a tent they shared together.

He was only 26 years old. 

On 26 July 2018, an Australian solicitor wrote to the Minister for Home Affairs on behalf of the mother, her child and her now widowed daughter-in-law.

The solicitor’s email told the story of what had happened to the family in the immediate aftermath of the eldest son’s suicide.

Traumatised after five years spent in detention and devastated by the death of her son, the mother had attempted suicide by cutting her wrists and strangling herself on 17 July 2018. Two days later, she repeatedly hit herself with rocks until she started to bleed.

A short time later, the boy – the mother’s surviving son – tried to cut himself with a knife. Fortunately, he was stopped by security. A few days later, he tried again – and was fortunately stopped again. The boy said that he wanted “to be with his brother”.

For the first few days after her husband’s death, the daughter-in-law sat on a mattress outside in the heat. The mattress was positioned next to a fence. On the other side of the fence, her husband’s body was held in a container. She cried, she hit her chest and her head and stopped eating.

The solicitor told the Minister for Home Affairs that the lives of her clients were clearly at risk. She told the Minister that the care they needed was not, and could not be, provided in Nauru.

She requested the immediate removal of her clients from Nauru so that they could be provided with urgent medical care in Australia.

Neither the Minister nor his office ever wrote back. 

On 14 August 2018, the solicitor emailed the Minister a second time with detailed mental health assessment reports by psychiatrists from Médecins Sans Frontières in relation to the mother, the boy and the daughter-in-law.

The reports detailed how the mother had declared her life had ended with the loss of her son. The mother had told psychiatrists: “he was my son, my friend, my heart, my everything”. She also endured terrible guilt, describing herself as a “horrible mother” for fleeing from Iran with her sons to give them a better life – and now her son was dead, frozen in a refrigerator. She told doctors that she did not believe in God anymore.

The psychiatric facilities on Nauru were the same facilities that treated the son who had taken his own life. Psychiatrists on Nauru said that the mother and daughter-in-law needed care from specialised staff who were unrelated to the son’s death. This was a matter of life or death.

So the care that the mother and the daughter-in-law needed could not be provided on Nauru.

Doctors said that the boy needed an inpatient child and adolescent psychiatric facility.

There is no inpatient child and adolescent psychiatric facility on Nauru.

The care that the boy needed could not be provided on Nauru.

Neither the Minister nor his office ever wrote back. 

On 29 August 2018, the solicitor wrote to the Minister again. The mental health of her clients had further deteriorated. The boy was refusing food.

The mother was refusing food.

The solicitor repeated her request to the Minister – the family required an immediate transfer from the environment that was causing them harm.

A lawyer for the Minister told the solicitor: “I have sought instructions”. But once again, neither the Minister nor his office ever wrote back. 

On 13 September 2018, the solicitor sent yet another email to the Minister.

The health of her clients had deteriorated further.

The boy left his room only once a day to go to the toilet. He no longer engaged with anyone, except to tell the treating clinicians about how much he missed his brother.

The family was receiving the most intense form of care available on Nauru. It was not enough.

The email attached new medical reports by new doctors.

It’s unclear whether the Minister, his office or his lawyers even opened the reports let alone read them because the email was ignored.

Once again, neither the Minister nor his office ever wrote back. 

On 19 September 2018, the solicitor wrote to the Minister for a fifth and final time.

The solicitor repeated the advice of treating clinicians – that her clients required admission to inpatient facilities on an immediate basis. Facilities that did not exist on Nauru. She repeated her request for the urgent removal of her clients.

For the fifth time, the Minister for Home Affairs ignored her.

At 4.30pm on 20 September 2018, the solicitor filed an application in the Federal Court of Australia on behalf of her clients. Less than 24 hours later, the Federal Court ordered the immediate transfer of the mother, the boy and the daughter-in-law to a location where they could receive the treatment they needed.

It should not take many months, a suicide, multiple suicide attempts, countless medical reports and an application to the Federal Court of Australia for vulnerable people in Australia’s care to receive urgent medical assistance.

But as the Federal Court said in relation to the mother, her son and her daughter in law: the family “had no choice but to commence proceedings seeking the relief they did in light of the fact that the Minister did not respond to a single letter that had been written requesting the urgent transfer of the applicants from Nauru”.

The solicitor who wrote to the Minister for Home Affairs five times on her client’s behalf – and who was ignored five times – is not “unAustralian”.

The Federal Court judge who ordered the family’s immediate transfer to Australia for urgent medical care is not a “hard left activist judge”.

The doctors who recommended the family’s immediate transfer to Australia over and over again – including the doctors employed by the Minister’s own Department – are not “activist doctors”.

The solicitor, the judge and the doctors were doing their job. The Medevac Laws merely require this callous and incompetent Minister to do his.

In 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, Australia’s now-Prime Minister and the now-Minister for Home Affairs refused to entertain the idea of allowing the family I have spoken about today – and other families like them – to be resettled in New Zealand under a standing offer negotiated by Julia Gillard in 2013. Had they done so, there would be nobody left in offshore detention today. 

If the Member for Dickson and his colleagues did their job by negotiating other third country resettlement options, vulnerable people would not have been languishing for six years in indefinite detention and requiring medical transfers.

The Medevac Laws should not be necessary but this Minister and this Government makes them necessary – and they must not be repealed.