Nauru refugee camp doctor removed as pressure on Australia mounts

SYDNEY: The chief doctor at an Australian offshore detention centre was removed Wednesday for breaching rules, her employer said, as Canberra sought to stem criticism of conditions at a deeply controversial immigration camp on Nauru.

It is the second time a top doctor contracted by Australia to provide healthcare at a camp on the Pacific island of Nauru has abruptly left the post.

It also comes after Medecins Sans Frontieres was ordered by Nauru to cease its mental health treatment earlier this month as the charity warned of a health crisis among child refugees held there.

The circumstances surrounding the doctor's removal and deportation were unclear but national broadcaster ABC reported Nauru may have suspected her of trying to alert media about the health of her patients.

Naming the doctor as Nicole Montana, ABC said she was arrested by Nauru police late Tuesday after taking a photo of a child she was treating, a breach of rules at the camp.

Her predecessor was abruptly deported after a dispute with the government over medical transfers.

International Health and Medical Services, the company that employed the doctor, confirmed to AFP she was “stood down for a breach of Regional Processing Centre rules” but did not elaborate on what the transgression was.

Grim conditions

Australia sends asylum-seekers who try to reach the country by boat to remote Pacific facilities such as on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, although the latter camp was shuttered late last year after a local court ruling.

Canberra has defended the harsh policy as being successful in ending the arrival of new boats.

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But the conditions in the camps have been slammed by rights groups amid reports of abuse, suicides and lengthy detention periods.

A recent visit by AFP to the Nauru camp revealed deep desperation among detainees and families living with the unbearable cloud of suicide attempts by their wives and daughters.

One inmate's 12-year-old daughter doused herself in petrol and threatened to set herself alight, after struggling to cope with spending half a decade and almost half her life in the camp.

Healthcare 'collapsing'

The plight of children in the centre came into sharp focus when Nauru kicked out MSF — also known as Doctors Without Borders.

The charity said many children were suffering “traumatic withdrawal syndrome” and were unable to eat, drink or talk.

Nauru dismissed the respected medical charity as “political activists”.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said Friday the health situation of the asylum-seekers and refugees was “collapsing”.

The international criticism comes amid growing domestic pressure on Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a former hardline immigration minister, to move sick children to Australia.

Three of his party's own parliamentarians are now publicly pushing him to evacuate the children and their families.

Morrison signalled to media late Tuesday he was looking to boost efforts to resettle the families to a third country such as neighbouring New Zealand.

Canberra previously repeatedly declined New Zealand's offer to take in some of the detainees.

MSF says there are nearly 900 asylum-seekers in Nauru, including 115 children. They have all been on the island for more than five years.

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The Australian government refused to weigh in on Montana's sacking, saying it was “a matter for the government of Nauru” and her employer.

“A replacement senior medical officer is in Nauru. There has been no impact to the continuity of care for transferees,” an unnamed Department of Home Affairs spokesman said in a written statement. — AFP