A Sydney author who has witnessed living conditions in the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres, says current debate around the medivac bill is a sign of a "stronger civil society in Australia."
Mark Isaacs has written about conflict and displacement around the world, including the looming humanitarian crisis in Central America that's become known as "the migrant caravan".
Speaking from Mexico, he said he supported Independent Dr Kerryn Phelps' Migration Amendment (Urgent Medical Treatment) Bill, which goes to a vote when parliament resumes this week. If successful, the Bill would give doctors the power to approve medical transfers to Australia - instead of the relevant Minister.
"I don't think anything has changed for the asylum seekers under the Liberals," he said.
Mr Isaacs was employed on Nauru in 2012, during the revival of the detention centres under the Gillard government.
As a new graduate of UTS' School of Communication, he had no idea what he was walking into. He arrived as a "Mission Worker" for the Salvation Army, which had responded quickly to what he calls a "man-made disaster" - but he had no experience, training or knowledge of what the job involved.
Mr Isaacs and his co-workers were mostly involved with placing arrivals in accommodation.
As time wore on, this "ad hoc group" of workers realised that there were needs to be fulfilled that went beyond having a place to sleep. Using whatever skills and resources were available, they sought to find ways to provide the detainees with a distraction from the reality of life in immigration detention.
While some taught English, Mr Isaacs quickly became a sort of recreations manager; organising events and excursions where the men could go to the beach or play sports.
"Overall, the system is designed to convince people not to come to Australia and return to the country they came from," he said.
In order to convince them, we had to destroy their hope. The purpose of this camp was essentially to destroy their hope.
But most of the asylum seekers he encountered had no option to return home. Their indefinite displacement had resulted in indefinite detention.
In his year in the Topside Camp on Nauru, Mr Isaacs witnessed the horrific effects that internment had on the detainees. Suicide attempts and self-harm were daily occurrences and mental health became a prevalent issue. In 2016, leaked incident reports known as The Nauru Files, confirmed the prevalence of physical and sexual assault, self-harm and child abuse.
The reports also revealed that children were involved in more than 50 per cent of all cases.
In 2017, Mr Isaacs travelled to Manus Island as a writer, where he documented and shared the consequences of poor living conditions and medical care.
This is P block, a WW2-era Quonset hut that used to house over one-hundred people. This is where Hamid Kehazaei died. Hamid’s death began with a sore on his leg. Then there was infection, sepsis, cardiorespiratory arrest, and finally a lack of oxygen to his brain caused his death. But what really killed Hamid Kehazaei was bureaucratic mismanagement of a health emergency in detention. When Hamid needed to be urgently transferred to Australia because facilities on Manus were inadequate, Australian immigration officials refused to give permission for his transfer for a further thirty-six hours. He died en route to hospital. #humanrightsabuse #manusisland #manus #hamidkehazei #crimesagainsthumanity #offshoredetention #papuanewguinea #png
A post shared by Mark Isaacs (@markj_isaacs) on
Detainees on Nauru do not have access to quality medical care. International aid group, Medicins Sans was asked to leave in November - without explanation.
These are the conditions that paved the way for the introduction of Dr Phelps' Migration Amendment Bill, just weeks later.
"Regardless of opinions on offshore processing," Dr Phelps said in her address to parliament, "Australia must not fail to provide critically ill people in its care - in particular, children - with urgent medical treatment, especially when the Australian government policy of indefinite detention has caused, or seriously exacerbated, physical and psychiatric illness."
Mr Isaacs believes that despite the government's official position that offshore detention operates as a deterrent, the reality feels more like "unnecessary cruelty".
"If you went to Manus now, you would find many tired, hopeless people... but that doesn't mean that they have stopped fighting".
Mr Isaacs encountered a similar sense of desperation in Chiapas, Mexico - near the border with Guatemala - where he recently followed the exodus of migrants heading towards the United States.
Among the hundreds of people, he found stories similar to those he heard countless times on Nauru. His ability to speak Spanish meant people were open to sharing those stories. The details varied, but the challenges and themes were the same - with many hopeful of being granted asylum.
They had this great faith in God... a lot of what they talked about was about how God would help the poor... [but] people got tired along the way.
As time wore on, hope started to wane. They returned to their home countries in fear, after hearing of US President Donald Trump's plans to deploy troops to the border.
Mr Isaacs, who is also releasing a book on the conflict in Afghanistan, says the onus is on nations like Australia and the US to take responsibility for the refugees that arise as a result of regional destabilisation.
The global migrant crisis, he adds, is indicative of widespread vilification in certain communities.
"Targeting the outsider in the community is an easy political ploy. [Immigration policies] convince us that vulnerable, desperate families are criminals we should be scared of, who deserve to be locked up. Who should we really be scared of?"
But he is hopeful of change because of what he calls the growth of civil society networks that has led to policy changes such as the removal of children from Nauru, and now the medivac bill.
"We're better at fighting the propaganda." - Gabriela Mancilla @imgabm_