HEAR THEIR CRIES: Rockhampton nurse, Jacinta O'Leary has finished work on Nauru but says the experience will never leave her.
HEAR THEIR CRIES: Rockhampton nurse, Jacinta O'Leary has finished work on Nauru but says the experience will never leave her. Christine McKee

'People are losing hope': CQ nurse reveals truth about Nauru

ROCKHAMPTON nurse Jacinta O'Leary has looked despair in the eye and seen first hand the lives of people with all hope gone.

Her work in intensive care, trauma, emergency aeromedical retrieval and high risk obstetrics has taken her to Uganda with Medicine Sans Frontiers, to the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan and most recently to Nauru where she helped establish a GP clinic.

She says those four months on Nauru, where she was one of three Australian nurses and the only western midwife, will never leave her.

"I saw patient after patient suffering from the effects of four years in detention," she said.

"Now that's 5.5 years and it's taken a terrible toll on mental health. Self-harm was common, depression and anxiety was common.

"Those people are losing all hope."

Rockhampton nurse, Jacinta O'Leary in Africa while working with Medicine sans Frontiers
Rockhampton nurse, Jacinta O'Leary in Africa while working with Medicine sans Frontiers

Ms O'Leary says Nauru is not an appropriate place to send refugees, that it's a country needing help itself, where the health system and education for the average person is very poor.

The GP clinic was set up to take pressure off the Nauran health system and hospital which she says is a typical dilapidated, dirty, grimy and smelly third-world hospital with no auditing or quality control.

"It's not a hospital by any means. Saying it's up to Australian standards is a lie," she said.

"Doctors don't keep notes and we weren't really welcome there.

Emilia, 6-years-old, and her sister Leticia, 3-years-old, hold signs during a rally in Melbourne
HEAR THEIR CRIES: Emilia, 6, and her sister Leticia, 3, hold signs during a rally in Melbourne. PENNY STEPHENS

"It's a difficult relationship ... anything that couldn't be managed within the resources of the GP clinic, the referral option was the Nauru hospital."

Ms O'Leary now volunteers with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, mainly giving clinical advice where needed, but next month she's helping to bring the film Border Politics to Rockhampton to help educate people about the truth and raise funds for ASRC to continue their work.

Border Politics was made by barrister and human rights advocate Julian Burnside, who travels the world exploring the biggest refugee crisis since WWII.

It looks at how the crisis has been handled by the western world and the rise of far-right politics.

"It's the politics of fear and divisiveness and refugees are being used as a pawn in that argument," Ms O'Leary said.

"We've denied them their human rights and not fulfilled our obligations under the Refugee Convention.

"This film asks where our democracies are headed.

"It implores governments to treat refugees with dignity and respect.

"It's an incredibly important film, because we're not hearing the truth from our politicians.

"I think history will judge Australia very harshly on this dark period."

Accommodation in the offshore processing facility on Nauru. Some refugees have been living in tents for four years.
Accommodation in the offshore processing facility on Nauru. Department of Immigration and Ci

See the film:

  • Border Politics
  • BCC Cinema Rockhampton
  • Wednesday, December 12, at 7pm
  • Tickets $23 with a percentage to support ASRC
  • Rated PG
  • Click here for more info

She says the word "illegal" has been intertwined into the conversation since the Tampa incident, along with ideas about threats to national security.

Anyone who enters Australia without a visa, overstays their visa or otherwise breaches the conditions, is classed as an unlawful non-citizen but the Australian Parliament's website clearly states that people have a right to seek asylum under international law and not be penalised for their mode of entry.

"It's not illegal to seek asylum; it's a lie," Ms O'Leary said.

"Seeking asylum is a human right under the Declaration of Human Rights, as a signatory to Refugee Convention.

"95 per cent of people on Nauru were classified as genuine refugees years ago, the other claims are still being processed.

"I've got no problem with wanting to protect borders and stop drownings at sea, but any policy that sees human suffering as part of that policy is wrong.

"These people are innocent, they have committed no crime.

"There's a flotilla of boats protecting our borders now, do we really need to keep those people on Nauru to protect that policy?"

The African hospital where Jacinta O'Leary worked
The African hospital where Jacinta O'Leary worked.

At a Lifeline event last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledged to journalist Mike Munro that he had been on his knees in tears over the children on Nauru but he wouldn't speculate on a timeframe for having all children removed from the island.

"We'll continue to act in accordance with our policies and what we'll do is ensure that anything we do will also not compromise the strength of our border protection policies, which for five years has ensured that people haven't got back on those boats," he said.

"I will manage both and I'll do both ... but it's about being strong and compassionate, and the two are not mutually exclusive.

"There is no decision you make in this space that is free of moral burden ... What I've always tried to do in this debate is respect the motives of people who are participating; I can understand that people have a very different view to mine and are motivated by the purest of motives."

Ms O'Leary insists it's only through the legal intervention of pro bono lawyers that children needing medical care were eventually transferred to Australia.

"Doctors' requests were repeatedly ignored. In some cases affidavits from doctors said the children were a day or two away from death," she said.

"While I was on Nauru there were people I was frightened were going to die. I reached out to human rights lawyers and they eventually got the care they needed only because of those lawyers.

"I'm amazed that despite what they've been through, fleeing for their lives, they are still some of the gentlest and loveliest people. They are just doing their best to be good parents to their children."

There are 22 children still on Nauru, 600 men and women, and 600 men on Manus Island.