Dhaka, Bangladesh
Lives above politics

Off the track

Lives above politics

Trevor Marshallsea

As the US-Australia refugee deal dominated headlines this week, a medical emergency was unfolding at an Australian detention centre on the Pacific island of Nauru. Advocacy groups have been pushing the Australian government to allow a Kuwaiti refugee, who is 37 weeks pregnant, to be flown to Brisbane to give birth by caesarean section. They say they alerted the government that she was a high-risk patient in December, due to the condition of pre-eclampsia, her baby being in the breech position, because of her age of 37 and because she had been prescribed the antidepressant citalopram, which can result in harmful side-effects on newborn babies. Known only as “Dee”, the woman has been on Nauru since late 2013 and is now living in the local community after being deemed a genuine refugee. However, with Australia having not approved her entry, the woman had remained in Nauru’s general hospital. While previously refugees on Nauru were routinely allowed into Australia to give birth in better-equipped hospitals, Australia has been reluctant to allow the practice since 2015, fearing that once in the country refugees will seek legal help to remain there. Finally, Dee was flown to Brisbane. According to Nauru’s government, it came after Australia gave permission. Australia sends all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Those processed there and classed as genuine refugees have been released into the local communities. Children of asylum seekers who give birth in Australia are not automatically given visas or citizenship. This “Pacific Solution” has been criticised by refugee advocacy groups, who say Australia - the sixth-largest country in the world geographically and with the seventh-lowest population density - could afford to show more compassion to asylum seekers and is obliged to do so under a UN convention. The government, supported by the main opposition, argues boat journeys are dangerous and controlled by people-smugglers. It says its policies have restored the integrity of Australia’s borders, prevented deaths at sea and discouraged people who aren’t genuine refugees from making the journey. It becomes still more complicated by the question of who should bear the responsibility in medical emergencies for those awaiting processing. Canberra’s reluctance to grant medical evacuations is not confined to problematic pregnancies. It has also been the case for refugees needing other treatment, such as an 11-year-old Iranian boy who was prevented from going to Australia for corrective surgery on a broken arm in 2015, despite a storm of protest.

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