Australia Bars Health and Humanitarian Workers From Speaking About Human Rights Abuses

By Alison Blaiklock

Health and humanitarian workers in Australia’s immigration detention centers now face imprisonment under Australia’s Border Force Act for talking about human rights abuses that they observe in detention centers.

The Act, which came into force on July 1, forbids contracted workers in any detention center from revealing information about conditions they observe—even the absence of basic sanitation or inadequate responses to child abuse. Workers who speak out can be imprisoned for up to two years.

Australia’s key nursing and midwifery organizations say the Act prohibits nurses and midwives from fulfilling their codes of professional standards and ethics, and the Australian Medical Students Association say it pushes doctors to contravene the Declaration of Geneva. Australian lawyers note that the Act “effectively turns the Department of Immigration into a secret security organization with police powers.”

More than 40 current and former detention center employees have written an open letter challenging the Australian government to prosecute them. They have done this “because standing by and watching sub-standard and harmful care, child abuse and gross violations of human rights is not ethically justifiable.” Australia’s most prominent health organizations have called for urgent amendments to the Act:

…to ensure protections for health professional and all contractors to speak freely in support of the need for best practice care and against harmful conditions or practices which may impact on those detained.

Australia’s onshore and offshore immigration detention centers are notorious for their harsh treatment of people seeking asylum, and for violating international human rights and humanitarian laws. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and UN human rights bodies have criticized Australia’s policies and actions towards asylum seekers. Health professional organizations have expressed serious concerns about immigration detention and its devastating impact on the health and well-being of children and their families, and have called for the immediate release of children and families.

In 2014, the Australian Human Rights Commission held a national inquiry into the conditions of children in detention. The Commission visited 11 detention centers with medical and health experts and found very high levels of mental illness, numerous reports of assaults, sexual assaults and self-harm, and other health problems. Their report, “Forgotten Children,”  claims that Australia’s policy of mandatory and prolonged detention of children is harmful and lacks rational explanation and that children have been deprived of their rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child- rights which are determinants of health.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, senior pediatrician David Isaacs described working in the Australian detention center in the small Pacific island country of Nauru.

Most children had stress-related behaviour problems. We saw a 6-year-old girl who had tried to strangle herself with a fence tie and a defiant 15-year-old boy who sewed his lips together in silent protest. The only hope we could offer these people was to promise to publicise their plight when we returned to Australia.

In March, Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur Against Torture, said that the Australian Government had violated the rights of asylum seekers, including children, to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, as provided by the Convention Against Torture. Protests continue and have spread internationally. New Zealand child health workers and the World Medical Association have both condemned the Act in open letters to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, saying it “is in striking conflict with basic principles of medical ethics.”

Alison Blaiklock, MBChB, MPHTM is a Public Health Physician and Honorary Senior Clinical Lecturer, Department of Public Health, University of Otago Wellington, New Zealand.

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