Yes, that’s correct: the Tony Abbott government of Australia has introduced a new law that makes it illegal for doctors treating asylum-seekers and refugees in so-called offshore processing centres – i.e. detention centres – to report abuse of any kind – physical, sexual, mental, etc. If they – or any other person, including teachers or aid workers – report that abuse to anyone, particularly the media, they can be prosecuted and face up to 2 years imprisonment. What Mr Abbott fails to understand is that doctors around the world have a duty under international law and their own medical ethics to report such abuse – details below. The AMA (Australian Medical Association) should immediately release a statement expressing their full support for all clinicians who report any abuse, no matter where that abuse occurs, and to condemn any move by the Australian Government to prevent clinicians from doing so. Human rights lawyers should assist the AMA in this endeavour.
UPDATE: The Australian Medical Association has stated it will oppose law that threatens clinicians (and teachers and other professionals) for reporting on health failures in detention centres. See also article by leading human rights barrister, Julian Burnside QC.
In July 2014 the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) issued the following statement…
“As the peak professional body representing Australian GPs, it is our moral responsibility to advocate for the health outcomes of vulnerable populations. The Australian Government must treat asylum seekers as a humanitarian rather than a political issue. The majority of those in detention have unique mental and physical healthcare needs as a consequence of the circumstances they have fled and these are further exacerbated by a prolonged period of uncertainty in detention. The primary care staff in these facilities, many of whom are GPs, are continuing to work in ethically challenging environments. As a consequence, GPs may not be able to uphold the appropriate clinical and ethical standards of quality patient care, because of the restrictions of these settings. The RACGP has a responsibility to advocate for these GPs as well as for those who are detained. There is a substantial body of evidence, which demonstrates that detention, particularly prolonged detention causes negative physical and mental health consequences for asylum seekers. We know there are more humane ways of processing those who arrive on our shores seeking asylum and it is our duty to ensure these people, particularly children, are treated ethically and with respect. The act of holding children in restrictive detention must cease as an urgent priority and the RACGP recommends the standard model of care be one of community residence where families are kept together and they have access to appropriate and priority medical services. The RACGP is urging the Government to action immediate policy reform and increase efforts to improve the speed and efficiency of refugee status assessment for all asylum seekers.”
In an article by Dr Michael Gliksman in Australian Medicine (journal of the Australian Medical Association) he states:
“The Australian Government is obliged, as a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to provide the same standard of health care to detainees as is available to the general population. There can be little doubt Australia is in breach of that Convention.”
The two offshore detention centres for asylum-seekers and refugees trying to enter Australia are on Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) and Nauru. Just under 1000 persons are detained on Manus Island and a similar number on Nauru. Transfield Services manage both the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres as part of a $2bn contract (renewed only days ago). Two weeks ago executives from Transfield faced a grilling from a Australian Senate Inquiry regarding conditions, including sexual assault of detainees, at both centres.
Earlier this year 23 current and former medical staff, teachers, social workers and child protection staff signed an open letter calling for the removal of all asylum seekers from Nauru to Australia. They have also called for a royal commission into sexual abuse on Nauru and into the government’s response. The three-page letter says comments by immigration minister Peter Dutton that there was a “zero tolerance” attitude to sexual abuse “do not reflect the attitude or actual response” on Nauru.
The letter states: “We would like to inform the Australian public that the government and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection [DIBP] has been aware of the [allegations of] sexual and physical assault of women and children on Nauru for at least 17 months, long before the Moss review was ever commissioned. [DIBP] and all service providers were informed, in writing, of several of the assaults detailed in the Moss review in addition to many other assaults not mentioned in the report.”
Former Save the Children workers named as signatories to the letter include Jesse-James Clements, Viktoria Vibhakar, Tobias Gunn, Jarrod Kenney, Hamish Tacey and E Maree. Named former staff from International Health and Medical Services include Dr Peter Young, Dr Rodney Juratowitch and Dr Michael Gordon.
Incidents highlighted in the letter include one from November 2013 in which a boy was sexually assaulted by a detention centre employee. Guardian Australia has previously reported on the case, and obtained documents that show the service provider Transfield filed an incident report at the time. The letter says that on this and other occasions, the immigration department was made aware of the allegations through incident reports, meetings and minutes from Save the Children meetings, but that it chose not to act. “Despite this knowledge, the DIBP chose to keep this child in the detention centre where he was assaulted and remained at risk of further abuse and retaliation. Indeed, this child was subjected to further incidents of abuse while he was in detention.”
The letter also says the sexual exploitation of vulnerable women by detention centre staff – another allegation raised by Moss – was reported to the Department of Immigration 16 months before the Moss review. “However, DIBP refused to remove these women from the unsafe detention environment.”
Finally, in March of this year Australia was accused of systematically violating the international Convention Against Torture by detaining children in immigration detention, and holding asylum seekers in dangerous and violent conditions on Manus Island, a United Nations report found.
According to Juan Mendez, the UN Rapporteur on Torture, “The government of Australia, by failing to provide adequate detention conditions; end the practice of detention of children; and put a stop to the escalating violence and tension at the regional processing centre, has violated the right of the asylum seekers including children to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,”. Two asylum seekers on Manus Island, referred to as Mr A and Mr B, allege they were tied to chairs by security staff and threatened with “physical violence, rape, and prosecution for ‘becoming aggressive’” if they refused to retract statements they had made to police about the murder of Reza Barati during detention centre riots.
Mendez added: “The Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment … violates the Convention Against Torture because it allows for the arbitrary detention and refugee determination at sea, without access to lawyers. The Migration Amendment (Character and General Visa Cancellation Bill) violates the CAT because it tightens control on the issuance of visas on the basis of character and risk assessments.”