The life and death legal fights for the sick kids on Nauru

On a recent Friday night, my colleagues and I received a phone call that was sadly similar to many we had received before. A teenager was critically ill on Nauru and required urgent medical treatment.

The next 24 hours were a blur. We were told by doctors that this teenager was at serious risk of death from an infection and that Nauru did not have the medical facilities needed to provide the urgent treatment required.

We worked through the weekend and late into the evenings to prepare the case. We were genuinely concerned that our client could die if she did not get the medical treatment she needed quickly.

By the Sunday afternoon, we had issued an urgent application in the Federal Court of Australia. After an evening court hearing, the Australian government finally agreed that our client would be transferred to Australia for the urgent medical care that she needed.

This case is one of many that lawyers have run to help refugees on Nauru access critical medical treatment. Since January, Maurice Blackburn has acted pro bono to get more than 20 people off Nauru for medical care. Many of our cases involved children, some as young as six months old.

It is no exaggeration to say that these are life and death cases.

The reality for lawyers working on these cases sits in stark contrast to the Australian government’s comments that it is taking independent action to get children off Nauru. The truth is that the vast majority of individuals transferred for medical reasons to Australia from Nauru are as a result of legal intervention. The Australian government should not try to claim the moral high ground on an issue it has repeatedly fought against in the courts.

A few weeks ago I visited one of these families transferred from Nauru. As I sat on the floor of their small flat, practicing Australian animal names with their two-year-old, the permanent and indefensible human cost of offshore detention struck me all over again.

This toddler was diagnosed with herpes encephalitis while on Nauru. Doctors for IHMS – the Australian government’s health contractor on Nauru – made numerous recommendations for urgent medical transfer to Australia or a country with comparable medical capabilities. Instead, the Australian government transferred the girl and her mother to Papua New Guinea, even though medical opinions showed that PNG may not have the appropriate capability to treat the two-year-old.

The child’s distressed father was forced to remain on Nauru alone, while in PNG, the mother was initially forced to find her own interpreter to communicate about her child’s medical condition.

Australian medical experts told us that the child urgently needed an MRI scan to assess potential brain damage. However, the hospital in PNG was not equipped to conduct this scan as it did not have compatible anaesthetic equipment to sedate a child during an MRI.

When we took this case to court, we were able to get an order that the two year old, and both parents, be brought to Australia for medical care. In his decision, the judge said: “It is hard to see how the decision to medically evacuate the applicant to PNG rather than to Australia was motivated by healthcare considerations.”

Although the Department of Immigration allowed the parents to accompany the child, the grandmother was forced to remain on Nauru. The family struggled with this separation. It took months of further legal and medical intervention for the government to agree to reunite the family last week.

It remains completely unacceptable that legal action is required to get proper medical care for individuals on Nauru. We have seen too many times that any delay in providing necessary treatment can have real and life threatening consequences.

I welcome reports that the government will get children off Nauru by the end of 2018. However, every day a child remains on Nauru is a day too many. We are yet to see the long term extent of the harm that this policy has done to children.

We must also not forget that there will still be men and women who remain in offshore detention. If the Australian government is genuine in its desire to provide proper health care for those on Manus and Nauru, it needs to stop playing political games with people’s lives and ensure that all individuals are removed from offshore processing centres.


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Nicki Lees

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne

Nicki Lees is a social justice Senior Associate, based in Maurice Blackburn’s Melbourne office. She is committed to and passionate about the protection and promotion of human rights in Australia.  

Nicki has a mix of global and domestic legal experience, including significant skills in international human rights law and human rights advocacy.

After completing Honours in Law and a Bachelor o…

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