Nauru camp unable to deal with mental health issues

Nauru's Topside asylum seeker processing centre.
Nauru's Topside asylum seeker processing centre.

THE head of health services in Nauru has asked that women and children asylum seekers not be sent to the tiny Pacific island, and has revealed that Nauru would be unable to cope with any mental health issues experienced by the detainees.

Setareki Vatucawaqa, Nauru's acting health secretary, also revealed the Australian army was helping to refurbish one of the wards at the island's 70-bed hospital so it could be used to treat asylum seekers.

But once refurbished, the ward will only have between four and 12 beds, and it is unclear whether that will be enough to deal with the overflow of a camp slated for a maximum population of 1500.

''The position of the government of Nauru, which we've made known to the Australian government, is that while it is still a tent city, that we perhaps restrict [arrivals] to the men until more comfortable accommodation is provided,'' Dr Vatucawaqa said.

When asked if the medical situation at the camp was adequate, Dr Vatucawaqa did not give a ringing endorsement of the facilities, saying: ''Given the situation, yes. And things can only get better.''

The Nauruan health authorities had received briefings from the Australians about the medical conditions experienced by asylum seekers who stay on the island for ''between three to six months'', he said. ''One of our gaps here - that we are happy that our Australians counterparts are addressing - is mental health,'' Dr Vatucawaqa said.

The effects of long-term indefinite detention on asylum seekers is a contentious issue in Australia, and there has been published medical research that argues that most people held longer than six months in immigration detention will experience some form of mental health issue.

Gano Mwareow is Nauru's nursing director and during the John Howard-era camp she spent her nights providing assistance to asylum seekers at the site.

She said she could not recall anyone who stayed for less than six months under that regime. If the situation is repeated under Labor, serious mental health issues could be experienced.

Nauru is clearly not in a position to assist with such health concerns. The island has only two psychiatric care nurses, and one is studying abroad. A psychiatrist visits the island four times a year.

Another issue raised by refugee advocates is the possibility that the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, may send pregnant women or children to the island before proper facilities are built.

Dr Vatucawaqa said he did not expect any pressure to be placed on the Nauruan health system by the arrival of pregnant asylum seekers, but said the hospital has one maternity ward - refurbished by AusAID last year - with eight beds and two delivery bays.

❏ The Indonesian army officer who helped organise a boat that sank last year en route to Australia, killing 200 asylum seekers, has been jailed for six years.

Sergeant Ilmun Abdul Said, who it is understood was working for people-smuggling kingpin Sayed Abbas, has admitted to helping arrange at least seven boats packed with asylum seekers.

This story Nauru camp unable to deal with mental health issues first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.