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Former Nauru doctor wins international free speech award


Paul Hayes


18/01/2019 11:18:02 AM

NSW GP Dr Nick Martin was awarded after speaking out on the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru.

Dr Nick Martin found the bureaucracy involved in delivering healthcare to refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru makes it ‘a system designed to fail’.
Dr Nick Martin found the bureaucracy involved in delivering healthcare to refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru makes it ‘a system designed to fail’.

‘When I worked on Nauru as a medical officer for refugees and asylum seekers, I never saw myself as part of the problem. But since I returned to Australia I have increasingly come to question my role in a system that is antithetical to medical ethics.’
 
That is what NSW GP Dr Nick Martin wrote in an October 2018 article, As doctors working on Nauru, we thought we were helping. Now I know we were not.
 
The former senior medical officer for International Health and Medical Services on Nauru, Dr Martin has been awarded the 2019 Blueprint for Free Speech prize in London for his efforts to raise awareness of the medical treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in offshore detention.
 
After witnessing the systemic bureaucratic issues on Nauru, Dr Martin felt compelled to speak out on what he has described as an ‘ongoing human rights travesty’.
 
‘The time came to take a long, hard look to see if I was actually part of the solution or accept that, after this long, doctors are increasingly being forced, by the way the systems on Nauru have been set up by the government, to be a major part of the problem,’ he wrote.
 
Dr Martin has played a role in a number of court challenges that brought dangerously ill children to Australia for treatment, including a young girl experiencing severe mental issues who was at risk of further suicide attempts.
 
‘In my opinion, Nauru is ill-equipped to handle complex mental health cases, particularly child mental health, and does not have the facilities to handle a complex child psychiatric case,’ he told the court.
 
Several hundred children were being held indefinitely on Nauru when Martin spoke out against the conditions. Fewer than 10 now remain on the island.

The RACGP has previously expressed concerns about the health of refugee and asylum seeker children.

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There have been reports of hunger strikes, self-harm and attempted suicide among children in detention on Nauru. (Image: Jason Oxenham)
 
During his time on Nauru, where he worked mostly in clinics at the Republic of Nauru Hospital (the RON), Dr Martin he battled as much bureaucracy as he did patient illness in a situation he feared was endangering lives.
 
Patients who require medical facilities unavailable on Nauru must be transferred to either Australia or the Papua New Guinea capital of Port Moresby. However, red tape proved a constant obstacle in the transfer process – even in severe cases.
 
‘Things like unstable angina, brittle diabetes, consistent kidney stones, lots of musculoskeletal problems,’ Dr Martin told newsGP last year.
 
‘We might have someone with, let’s say obstructive kidney stones, and that would be something semi-urgent and you’d expect them to get off to have a stent put in. You would put it down as, “This has to happen in a month”, and then 18 months later they are still [on Nauru].
 
‘That’s the gravity of the delays.’
 
Originally from the UK, Dr Martin spent more than a decade as a surgeon lieutenant commander in the British Royal Navy before coming to Australia in 2012.
 
Following a one-month placement, Dr Martin embarked upon more permanent rotations as a senior medical officer on Nauru from November 2016 to August 2017. Despite his extensive military background, Dr Martin found he was ill prepared for the complexities and desperation of what awaited him on Nauru.
 
‘I was on nuclear submarines, was involved in the Second Gulf War, the Afghanistan campaign. I think my military background prepared me for dealing with lots of the little or petty rules and regulations,’ he said. ‘But not in terms of the obstruction, the bureaucracy and, particularly in the children, the level of hopelessness.
 
‘They used to call it “detention fatigue”, which seems to have settled upon most [refugees and asylum seekers], because they have no hope. They give no hope of going anywhere.
 
‘I’ve never experienced anything like that before.’
 
Blueprint for Free Speech is a charity that provides research and analysis in support of freedom of expression for all people. Its prizes acknowledge ‘the bravery of the recipient’s decision, in the face of difficult ethical challenges, to reveal the truth’.
 
On receiving the 2019 award, Dr Martin told the audience that the situation on Nauru ‘diminishes us all’.



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