Medical students dressed in scrubs and lab coats are marching through Sydney today to demand an end to Australia's offshore detention policy.
"We see it as part of our training to realise that advocacy on behalf of our patients is part of the job," medical student and coorganiser of the Detention Harms Health rally Ahshvini Cenan told BuzzFeed News.
"In medicine we learn that preventative health is the best kind of medicine and we are intentionally putting these people through a lot of suffering that is harming their health," Cenan said. "We are students but in a few years we're going to be doctors and we need to take responsibility."
The rally was organised by the Australian Medical Students Association, the peak body for Australia's future doctors, representing 17,000 medical students.
"AMSA is really frustrated at the lack of response from the letters we sent the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection earlier this year asking for answers about the health services on Nauru and Manus Island," Cenan said.
"We want the government to allow independent health assessment of refugees and asylum seekers because there is still such a lack of transparency about how people are actually being treated, and we've heard reports of people waiting for a year or longer for treatment, people that will lose a kidney if they don't get treatment.
"Essentially we want to point out the fact that detention harms health regardless of whether we are allowed to send over a team. Offshore detention as a policy is unacceptable and it is inhumane."
Speaking at the rally is psychiatrist Peter Young, the former director of mental health services at detention centre service provider International Health and Mental Services, and paediatrician David Isaacs, who has treated babies on Nauru and has described prolonged offshore detention as "torture".
The Australian government has sent more than 700 men, women, and children to Nauru, and more than 1,300 men to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, as part of Australia’s controversial immigration detention regime.
People seeking asylum who attempted to arrive in Australia by boat, fleeing wars and persecution in Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, have been held on Nauru and in PNG for more than four years.
Manus Island’s main detention centre was last year closed and the remaining men, roughly 600, were ordered to move to three new sites in the island’s town of Lorengau.
Under a deal struck with former US president Barack Obama, some refugees have been resettled in the US. Since September, 139 refugees have left Nauru and 85 have left Manus Island.
The latest government figures, released last month, show there are still 309 men, women, and children detained on Nauru.
University of Newcastle medical student Gabby Cullen said students wanted an end to offshore detention altogether.
"We are a huge student body of 17,000 students and that is a massive workforce that will be coming up in the next seven years, but currently we don't have to be as politically conservative [as certified doctors] so we are at a prime time in our lives to demand change," Cullen told BuzzFeed News.
"Ideally all offshore detention should end, because no matter what the conditions are, detention still has a detrimental effect on people," she said. "The United Nations have gone in and deemed [offshore detention centres] uninhabitable, and yet our government are doing nothing and instead saying, 'It's not our problem, it is Papua New Guinea's problem, it is Nauru's problem'," she said.
"These people are seeking asylum in our country and it is our legal obligation."
Cullen said she looked up to the Brisbane doctors who refused to discharge a 1-year-old girl known as Asha back to Nauru until a "suitable home environment" was identified.
"We need more people like that going into the workforce," she said.
In November, a group of Australian doctors, psychiatrists, and surgeons wrote an open letter to the federal government offering to fly to Manus Island and treat asylum seekers and refugees for free.
"Detention does harm health and we are not going to stop calling it out," Rachel Wong, a third-year medical student at the University of New South Wales, told BuzzFeed News. "We know the longer these people stay in detention, the worse their health is. Next week we will be calling MPs to take action on this."
A BuzzFeed News investigation in October revealed asylum seekers with life-threatening medical conditions held in Australia’s offshore detention regime were facing treatment delays so severe that a whistleblower feared it may cost them their lives.
Nick Martin was the most senior official deployed on the remote Pacific nation of Nauru ever to publicly speak out about Australia’s offshore immigration system, as part of a joint investigation between BuzzFeed News and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
He alleged that patients with breast lumps, kidney stones, and neurological damage were delayed diagnostic treatments; and that severely diabetic asylum seekers held within the detention regime were at risk of going blind.
Patients who needed medical facilities that were not available on the island had to be transferred to the Papua New Guinea capital of Port Moresby, or Australia — but often Australian officials would delay these transfers, worsening the patients' medical conditions and potentially endangering their lives.