MSF forced to terminate mental health services for refugees and leave

Association

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) forced to terminate mental health care services

On 6th October 2018, Nauru’s government ordered Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to stop work there immediately and leave the island, despite a physical and mental health crisis in the country.

The medical NGO has been providing psychological and psychiatric services to residents, asylum seekers and refugees on the island since late 2017. MSF staff wrote to its clients to tell them it could no longer offer them treatment because of an order from Nauru’s health minister, who said its services were “no longer required on the island”.

An MSF spokeswoman said:

“At this stage MSF wishes to reiterate our strong commitment to providing quality mental health care to all those in need on the island…we are extremely concerned that the health of our patients may be affected by this decision and urge the authorities to grant us permission to continue our lifesaving work.”

Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition, said Nauru’s decision was taken because MSF was “perceived to be helping refugees”, but that the Australian government was ultimately to blame.

On 11th October 2018, MSF called for the immediate evacuation of all asylum seekers and refugees from Nauru and a permanent end to Australia’s offshore detention policy. MSF Australia’s director, Paul McPhun said there was “nothing humanitarian about saving people from sea only to leave them in an open-air prison” and that "this policy should be stopped immediately and should not be replicated by any government”.

On 12th October 2018, it was reported that the Nauruan government accused MSF of “conspiring against it and entering the country under the guise of healthcare in order to engage in political activism”.

There have been growing calls for children and their families to be removed from the island to receive treatment. Some have already been moved off the island, including to Australia, but about 30 children remain.

Australian politician denied access to visit Nauru

On 26th October 2018, an Australian senator was refused a visa to visit Nauru, with the country’s consulate claiming it was because the request was not supported by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The Greens party senator Nick McKim had sought to visit the island nation in late October 2018 to speak with the refugees sent there by the Australian government and to inspect their living conditions. However, he was told his visa request was denied.

As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, the government has restricted media freedom and hampered independent scrutiny of Nauru’s policies and practices, especially of the Australia-run refugee detention centres on the island, where there has been widespread reports of physical, psychological and sexual abuse. There are around 650 people on Nauru who have been sent there as part of Australia’s offshore processing system.

Peaceful Assembly

Court drops charges against protesters after unfair trial

A group of Nauruans accused of anti-government protests three years ago have had their case dropped. On 13th September 2018, Justice Geoffrey Muecke granted them a permanent stay on charges that included rioting and disturbing the legislature and entering a restricted area.

A group of 19 individuals, including several former parliamentarians and a former Nauruan president had organised a protest outside parliament in June 2015. They were among hundreds protesting against the former parliamentarians’ suspension from parliament after they made comments critical of the Nauruan government in parliament. The parliamentarians had spoken out about the erosion of the independence of the judiciary in Nauru after the deportation of resident magistrate, Australian lawyer Peter Law, and the barring of Nauruan Chief Justice Geoffrey Eames from re-entering the country in 2014.

In June 2018, the group had sought a permanent stay on the charges contending the trial process had dragged on too long and the Nauru Justice Department had not met a court-directed order to pay some of the expenses of the group's Australian lawyers.

Justice Muecke's judgement said there had been executive interference in the case "virtually from the day after the events outside Parliament", and criticised the Government for trying to hamper the defendants' attempts to seek legal assistance. The judge also made reference to an alleged verbal "blacklist" which the 19 were listed on, saying this made it difficult for the defendants to find work and support themselves as well as access medical care.

Mathew Batsiua, one of the protesters, said the judgment justified the initial protest:

“We who protested in 2015 against the destruction of parliamentary democracy and the judiciary have been vindicated. This judgment exposes this immoral and corrupt government for what it is.”

Christian Hearn, one of six Australian lawyers representing the Nauru 19, said it was an "important day for the rule of law in Nauru”.

Three members of the Nauru 19 had previously pleaded guilty to their charges and were jailed. An application for a permanent stay of their case will be heard in coming months. The Nauru Government has indicated the Director of Public Prosecutions will appeal.