Australia: Controversial law amended

October 24, 2016

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Medical Doctors in Australia have forced the federal government to back down on controversial laws banning health practitioners from publicly revealing abuse and medical negligence in Australia’s offshore detention centres for refugees. Just days before the federal government was due to respond to a High Court challenge from the local organisation Doctors for Refugees, it has instead amended the Australian Border Force Act (2015) to exempt health professionals, including doctors, nurses, midwives, psychologists and others.

The President of Doctors for Refugees, Dr Barri Phatarfod, said the decision was a “huge win for doctors and recognition that our code of ethics is paramount”. However, she also expressed her concern that the exemption does not include other workers, such as social workers, teachers and other guardians. She said the change also “only allows us to speak for our patients – it doesn’t change the appalling lack of care they often seem to receive. Currently, Doctors for Refugees is advocating for several children denied special needs care as well as women unable to get a breast lump biopsy and other significant deviations from appropriate medical treatment. We have around 160 active cases of concern.”

Medical treatment in detention camps

The group’s challenge to the Border Force Act was brought by Fitzroy Legal Centre. According to solicitor Meghan Fitzgerald “The conditions in which asylum seekers and refugees live – including pregnant women, children, the elderly, people with disabilities – and the medical treatment they do or do not receive, are not matters of national security.” […] “Whether there is active TB in the detention camps, or young children are being assaulted by guards are issues that we as Australians should know about. The government is elected by the people, and we are entitled to know what is done in our name, as opposed to being forced into complicity through laws that blind us.”

Mass protests

Doctors for Refugees filed the action after 12 months of unsuccesful discussions between the main medical bodies including the Australian Medical Association and the government. Dr Phatarfod: “This confirms the power of individuals to help change laws that are simply wrong. The mass protests by health professionals around the country in the last few years demonstrates the strong opposition to this anti-democratic legislation and must be credited with helping bring about this change of heart,” she said.

Doctors for Refugees will continue with a planned protest on November 5 calling for an end to offshore and indefinite detention, as well as improvements to health care provided to refugees and asylum seekers.


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Source: Media release Doctors for Refugees, October 22, 2016