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24 Jun 2014

The nation’s largest specialist medical college has condemned the detention of children in immigration centres and demanded that they be held for no longer than two weeks.

As the Federal Government trumpets the success of its hard-line ‘turn back the boats’ policy, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians has called for a major rethink of the treatment of child refugees.

The College’s incoming President, Professor Nicholas Talley, said the RACP did not support the detention of children and families for any length of time, and was extremely concerned about mandatory detention.

“It is unacceptable that we are locking up more than 1000 children, including unaccompanied minors, for up to nine months at a time,” Professor Talley said. “Immigration detention is not a suitable or safe environment for children. exposed to violence, self-harm, distressed parents and adults with significant mental health problems.”

Paediatrician and College member Dr Karen Zwi, who recently visited Christmas Island as part of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into children in immigration detention, said offshore facilities did not have health services for children with special needs and pregnant women.

“Medical services are not adequately screening children for infectious disease, developmental delay and common problems such as anaemia,” Dr Zwi said. “These conditions can be easily treated if detected early, but can cause long-term complications if neglected. Children in detention deserve the same standards of care as we would offer to all children.”

Concerns about conditions in offshore detention centres have been heightened by the Abbott Government’s shock decision late last year to disband the Immigration Health Advisory Group (IHAG), which included representatives from the AMA as well as general practitioners, psychiatrists, psychologists and other medical professionals, and provided independent advice on the treatment of asylum seekers.

Soon after the decision, information was published showing rates of depression and severe mental stress in detention centres had soared. Figures compiled by contractor International Health and Medical Services and obtained by The Australian under Freedom of Information laws showed that almost 45 per cent of detainees were diagnosed with psychological problems in the September 2013 quarter, almost double the 23.1 per cent reported with a similar diagnosis six months earlier.

The AMA has called for the establishment of a “truly independent” medical panel to oversee and report directly to Parliament on health services for asylum seekers being held in detention.

In its submission to the AHRC inquiry, the College echoed the AMA’s call and recommended that processing time for children and adolescents be no more than two weeks, after which they and their families must be transferred to a community setting.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 24 Jun 2014