Refugee Kids Are Finally Getting Off Nauru, After Years In Limbo

After five years, mounting public outrage, countless pleas for action from doctors, lawyers and politicians -- the kids are finally getting off Nauru.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed the government has been "quietly" working to get all the refugee and asylum seeker children off the Pacific island. Some children have been there since they and their family were  detained in the now-shuttered Australian-run detention centre on Nauru, while other children have been born on the island.

Campaigns against Australia's offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island have run since they were reopened to deal with a surge of boat arrivals under the former Labor government near the start of the decade. But a recent intense push focusing on freeing children from Nauru has seemed to finally cut through the public consciousness.

The spanking the government received in the Wentworth by-election -- where refugee policy was raised as a major issue among voters -- and the prospect of a looming federal election, probably encouraged the change too.

Images of sad young children have flooded our newspapers, screens and social media feeds; celebrities have filmed heartfelt videos begging politicians for change; doctors, lawyers and human rights advocates have repeatedly laid out startling facts around the physical and mental distress refugees are suffering.

READ MORE: Nauru Doctors Slam Expulsion Amid Fears For Refugee Kids

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Médecins Sans Frontières, also known as Doctors Without Borders, reported children on Nauru as young as nine have attempted suicide, and expressed fears some would die after MSF staff were expelled from the island last month.

A team of around 10 psychologists and psychiatrists had been assisting dozens of refugees on the island experiencing severe mental issues including depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidal ideations and the rare 'withdrawal syndrome', where people withdraw from eating, drinking, going outside or even using the toilet.

Since the days of the Rudd government, these refugees -- by extension, the children -- were told they would never be settled in Australia.

The Prime Minister has been changed more often than the sheets in the Lodge in the last decade, but the hard-line stance on resettling Manus and Nauru detainees here has been one of the few constant themes running through changing governments and leaders. 

Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton (Image: AAP Photos)

Successive administrations and immigration ministers have worked to block medical transfers of sick or distressed refugees to Australia for treatment, with some insinuations refugees were faking illnesses to reach the mainland. Governments remained opposed even to bringing dying refugees to Australia for palliative care, or cancer-stricken patients to receive treatment not available on Manus or Nauru.

Even a few weeks ago, it seemed impossible that the government would agree to a full-scale removal of refugee children from the island.

But the PM has now confirmed plans have been underway for a while to get the kids off Nauru. The Australian reported there were just 40 refugee children left there, down from 52 just a few weeks ago. There is talk all children will be off Nauru by Christmas.

Nauru (Photo: Getty)

"Altogether, 38 children and their families still remain in offshore processing and the government has the power to transfer all of them to Australia for medical treatment immediately, if it had the will to do so," the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said in a statement.

"The ASRC urges the Morrison government to follow through on this morning’s promise -- that it is getting children off Nauru -- by dropping all legal opposition to medical transfers to Australia. And to transfer all 38 children and their families to Australia immediately for proper medical care to save lives."

The ASRC claimed there were 20 children in need of urgent medical care.

“The government cannot say it is acting on this issue until all children are here in Australian hospitals receiving medical treatment,” detention advocacy manager Natasha Blucher said.

Advocates have also criticised Morrison and the government for painting recent removals from Nauru as a compassionate act, when many cases were only addressed after court orders -- which the government fought.

It remains to be seen exactly how and when the refugee children will all be off Nauru, and how they will be treated once on the mainland.

But the radical policy change, unthinkable even weeks ago, has been welcomed by many and is perhaps a sign the Coalition is aware it faces significant challenges in retaining office at the coming federal election.

The Liberal party is at a crossroads, leaking votes on the right to One Nation and other conservative independents, and on the left to Labor and more moderate independent candidates -- Kerryn Phelps in Wentworth being a prime example.

The Liberals have come under fire for taking a more conservative tack on some issues around trade, religion and foreign policy, so softening slightly on refugees -- they may hope -- could win them back a few votes on the left.