Award-winning GP vows to keep speaking out for asylum seekers

Amanda Lyons

11/02/2019 2:04:18 PM

Dr Nick Martin, former senior medical officer on Nauru, talks about why he decided to expose what he saw there and his hopes for the future.

Dr Nick Martin, NSW GP and former senior medical officer on Nauru, will keep speaking out about a lack of adequate medical care for asylum seekers and refugees.
Dr Nick Martin, NSW GP and former senior medical officer on Nauru, will keep speaking out about a lack of adequate medical care for asylum seekers and refugees.

After seeing the conditions endured by the refugees and asylum seekers detained on Nauru, including sub-standard medical care and indeterminate detention leading to resignation syndrome, Dr Nick Martin felt he had to speak out.
While his words may not have been welcomed by everyone, Dr Martin was recently awarded the 2019 Blueprint for Free Speech prize in London for his efforts to highlight the lack of adequate medical care provided to refugees and asylum seekers in offshore detention.
Ahead of this week’s vote in the House of Representatives on the Urgent Medical Treatment Bill, newsGP spoke with Dr Martin about winning the Blueprint for Free Speech Prize, his reasons for speaking out, and what he hopes for in the future in relation to the medical care of asylum seekers and refugees by Australia.
How did it feel to receive the Global Free Speech Award, and what did it mean to you?
I was very surprised to receive it, especially when you look at the calibre of the other people who have received the award in the past and the others who were recipients this year. It’s quite humbling to even be considered in their presence; these people who have experienced physical violence and exile and imprisonment.
I haven’t, any of those things – which I’m quite thankful for.
It’s always nice to get an award, it’s just I think it’s a massive shame that things have come to this, that people like me feel – I shouldn’t have to whistle-blow.
But it was very humbling, it was very lovely to receive. I was very honoured and it did seem to make things worthwhile.
And with the new Parliamentary season about to start and the bill for medical transfer of refugees about to be debated again, I think anything that can keep the fact that Nauru and Manus are still going in the public consciousness is a good thing.
It’s not easy to speak out. What was your motivation for doing so?
My motivation was anger at what was happening in the Australian Government’s name, and knowing how appalled I was at the way that refugees and asylum seekers were being treated by the system. I figured the average Australian would also be appalled to find out this was going on.
I felt I was in a position where, if I did speak out, I would have some credibility. And it was really just disgust at what was going on, and I felt I couldn’t tolerate what was happening.
Seeing the situation for yourself must have changed your feeling about what was going on.
It certainly did – and I’ve written about that.
I think there’s always the argument that doctors working in refugee detention are part of the problem or part of the solution. I certainly went there to be part of a solution, to try and change things from the inside.
I raised my concerns up the chains available to me, but when I realised they were falling on deaf ears and people did not want to hear what I was saying, I felt in the end I had no choice but to go outside of those lines of communication.
Have there been any repercussions for you as a result of that decision?
I’ve certainly found out who my friends are. I lost my job there [as senior medical officer for International Health and Medical Services on Nauru], and had to very quickly get locum work.
But in terms of repercussions, I’ve been very lucky so far. I think they would not want to risk a court case, because all the information could then come out in the open, and the whole point of the offshore detention system is to keep it out of the public eye.

Nauru-Hero.jpgDr Nick Martin found the medical treatment available to people in the Nauru detention centre to be inadequate. (Image: Médecins Sans Frontières)
Was there any particular circumstance or case you found especially upsetting?
There were so many, it would be unfair to single one out in particular. But as a group, the children; although I think most of the kids have left Nauru now, I think all but a handful, maybe two.
But all the cases I saw, where people simply wanted to get treatment and that was not happening – there were so many, I could tell you horror stories of people who were going blind, people in pain every day. People who were showing marked signs of psychiatric illness and getting worse every day, and still are.
Going to the UK to receive the award must have given a sense of how the situation is perceived by other countries. What did you take away from that?
I took away that Australia’s policy of trying to keep offshore out of sight and out of mind is no longer viable, that people in the UK and other countries are very aware of what Australia is doing, and I think it seems that Australia’s behaviours are a massive smear on its reputation.
You just have to see the condemnation of the United Nations and by major international organisations like Medicins San Frontieres [Medicine Without Borders], internationally respected organisations that are appalled at what is happening in Australia.
The awareness is increasing internationally that Australia is being punitive towards people who stay on Manus and Nauru.
What would you like to see happen in the future?
I would like to see, quite simply, the camps close down.
I think that while Australia has a right and obligation to secure its borders, the fact remains that the vast majority of asylum seekers arrive by air, and having this rhetoric against ‘boat people’ is regressive and, frankly, racist, and is being used to score cheap political points.
What does the future hold for you?
I will continue to do locums around Australia, and I still remain interested in refugee medicine. I will continue to do affidavits to push the cases the Australian Government is fighting in the courts to stop people receiving medical care they desperately need.
I’m aware that you can’t say anything about how we treat asylum seekers and refugees without it being a really political statement, but I’d say I’m not political; I went into this and spoke out from a humanitarian point of view and will continue to do so.
I am aware that both major political parties are still in favour of off-shore detention and off-shore processing, but off-shore detention has been shown to be incredibly damaging to people’s health, mentally and physically. I quite firmly believe this will be an apology in years to come.
These people have been overwhelmingly found to be genuine refugees and those who say, send them back; well, back to where? By legal fact, they can’t go back home. No-one gets in a leaky boat unless they’re fleeing something quite horrible.
Yes, you can detain people, you can process them, you can find out exactly how they are and you can vet them. But just to keep them there, languishing, out of sight and out of mind, is a hugely cynical thing to do to your fellow man.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

Human rights Nauru Refugee and Asylum seeker health

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Rosalie Schultz   12/02/2019 11:08:35 PM

Congratulations to Dr Martin, you are an inspiration to us all, putting into action our obligations to advocate for the health and medical needs of our patients and the community.

Aline Smith   14/02/2019 4:25:38 AM

Support your work 100%

Dr.Gnanasegaran Xavier FRACGP N0.519256   17/02/2019 1:27:58 AM

Here we have illegal immigrants,estimated more than 2 million.When the citizens themselves have overcrowded facilities,how much can actually be done for the illegal immigrants.