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04 Jun 2015

Mounting evidence about the serious and far-reaching physical and psychological harm being suffered by detained asylum seekers has fuelled calls for the AMA to intensify its lobbying on the controversial policy.

As the medical profession contemplates new laws that threaten to imprison medical practitioners who blow the whistle on shortcomings in the health care of asylum seekers, the AMA National Conference has called for an urgent update of AMA policy to take into account offshore processing and indefinite detention.

Meeting on 31 May in Brisbane, the Conference unanimously passed a motion requesting the AMA Federal Council to review the AMA Health of Asylum Seekers 2011 policy, with particular attention to “new evidence of ongoing and permanent damage being inflicted on detainees as a consequence of the 19 July 2013 law”.

The law, introduced by the Rudd Government, provided that asylum seekers would only be processed in offshore detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and would be resettled there – or in a third country - if their claims were successful. None arriving after 19 July 2013 would be settled in Australia.

Darwin-based paediatrician Dr Paul Bauert, who moved the motion, said that as a result of the law, asylum seekers, including children, were being detained for lengthy periods, often in “abominable” conditions.

Dr Bauert told the conference that such detention was causing “on-going damage” to detainees and was unethical.

Speaking in support of the motion, child psychiatrist Dr Choong-Siew Yong said the Government’s policies had created a “toxic environment” in immigration detention centres that would have long-term harmful effects, particularly on children, and urged action.

“As doctors, we cannot just stand by and watch,” Dr Yong said.

The AMA conference also raised concerns about provisions in the Australian Border Protection Act 2015 passed last month under which doctors or any other detention centre workers who disclose health care failures could be imprisoned for up to two years.

The AMA conference unanimously supported a notice of motion from Doctors for Refugees co-founder Dr Richard Kidd asking the AMA Federal Council to lobby the Government to exempt from prosecution medical practitioners who blow the whistle on poor health care in detention centres.

Dr Kidd said doctors had a duty to make the welfare of their patients their top priority, and this inferred both a right and a responsibility to disclose failures in care.

The AMA conference’s call for action has come amid intensifying concern about the health and welfare of asylum seekers, particularly those held in offshore detention centres.

Earlier this year, the results of an Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry were released showing 233 assaults recorded at detention centres between January 2014 and March 2014 involved children, and there were 33 incidents of reported sexual assault.

And the Royal Commission into child sex abuse, which has conducted a large number of high profile public hearings into horrific instances of abuse and the failure of institutions including churches, schools, and group homes to protect children in their care, is investigating the management of the nation’s immigration centres.

Immigration Department Secretary Michael Pezzullo  confirmed to a Senate Estimates hearing late last month that the Royal Commission had been in contact with the department and were preparing a notice requiring it to hand over documents.

Video of the Conference debate on the asylum seeker motion can be viewed at:

Adrian Rollins

Published: 04 Jun 2015