At least 23 refugees at the Manus Island offshore detention centre have self-harmed or attempted suicide in the 12 days since Australia’s conservative Coalition government was reelected. Between Manus and Port Moresby, where multiple asylum-seekers have been hospitalised, that number is as high as 26, the ABC reports. That means that, on average, two refugees have either committed self-harm or attempted to take their own life every day since Scott Morrison won the election. At least six of the incidents on Manus have occurred in just the last 48 hours.
"The situation was already deteriorating prior to the election, but subsequent to the election it is now out of control," said refugee advocate Ian Rintoul, who is in regular contact with asylum-seekers in offshore detention. "It's clear that the crisis situation is only going to spiral further."
Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish author and asylum-seeker who’s been detained on Manus since 2013, has described the situation on the island as “an absolute emergency” and “a humanitarian crisis.” Yesterday afternoon he tweeted the following:
“The hospital staffs… cannot accept any more people in the hospital,” Behrouz wrote in a subsequent post. “The situation is out of control and everyone is affected and traumatised by suicide attempts everywhere in Manus.”
It’s thought that the recent surge in suicide attempts is the result of people losing hope of resettlement following the government’s reelection—with many of the belief that they now face another three years in detention under the incumbent Coalition. While the Labor opposition had pledged to accept New Zealand’s offer of resettling 150 refugees from Manus Island and Nauru, and suggested they would find a third country to accept more, the Morrison government has steadfastly refused the deal and declared that they intend to cap Australia’s refugee intake. A bilateral deal between Australia and the United States to resettle 1,200 refugees has also slowed considerably, reportedly fuelling despondency.
The Australian government refused to comment on individual medical incidents. According to Fairfax, Immigration Minister David Coleman referred queries to the Department of Home Affairs, which failed to address questions about the reports of self-harm. A spokesperson for the department claimed that specialist psychological and psychiatric services were available in Papua New Guinea, and if no treatment could be provided then transfers to Australia were available.
The government has insisted, however, that they intend to repeal legislation that allows for the temporary transfer of sick asylum seekers from offshore detention centres to Australia. The so-called “medevac bill”, which passed through Parliament against the coalition’s wishes earlier this year, means refugees would be able to come to Australia on the advice of a medical professional to receive appropriate medical assessment and treatment that’s unavailable on Manus and Nauru. As recently as last week, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg maintained that the government was committed to unwinding that bill—despite the likely possibility that their attempts will be vetoed by the Senate.
Since the Medevac bill was in February, the Medical Evacuation Response Group has reportedly received an average of 11.5 applications for assistance from asylum-seekers per day. More than 40 refugees have been transferred off Manus and Nauru in that time. Clearly, that’s not enough.
"The local hospital is simply not able to cope — some people who have self-harmed have been turned away from the hospital this morning," Rintoul told the ABC yesterday, while Manus Island's police chief David Yapu called on both Papua New Guinean and Australian authorities to acknowledge and address the crisis of “serious mental illness” among asylum-seekers detained there.
"I think it's something that both the PNG Government and the Australian Governments have to look at,” he said. “Because the more they [the refugees] live [here] they develop this stress and depression."
Katie Robertson, legal director at the Human Rights Law Centre, described the situation as an "unprecedented medical crisis", and said that it was solely Australia's responsibility to deal with it.
"What we are seeing is the result of six long years of an extremely punitive and cruel policy in which the Australian Government has deliberately and consistently denied refugees essential and critical medical care," Katie said. "The Australian Government has, and has always had, the power—and indeed the legal obligation—to transfer refugees in its care to Australia for critical medical treatment."
Behrouz’s assessment of the crisis is perhaps even more dire than that.
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