Australia: Health workers’ role in the prevention of mistreatment or abuse of asylum seekers

February 24, 2016

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IFHHRO has endorsed a statement by the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) concerning the role of care takers (including health-care professionals) in reporting on the condition of refugees in detention centres. According to this statement, medical professionals are compelled by ethical standards and by international humanitarian laws “to take all necessary steps not to participate, but to be active in the prevention of all forms of mistreatment or abuse.”

Since July 2015, a new law in Australia forbids contracted workers including doctors and nurses to blow the whistle on substandard medical care given to asylum seekers in detention centres. They face a prison sentence of up to two years for violating this law.

The right and obligation to report

The WPA statement stresses that “not only immediate participation in, but also suppressing or not reporting information on torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment constitutes participation in such acts and is prohibited by the above standards.” The signatories are asking the Government of Australia to revise any national laws that violate international standards such as the Istanbul Protocol; improve the situation of asylum seekers; and respect compliance of health-care professionals with their ethical standards, including their right to draw attention to violations in any form necessary.

The government should also “investigate and prevent all forms of abuse and violation of international humanitarian and ethical standards; publish any relevant information and the results of such investigations; and implement preventive monitoring and full access to necessary treatment, support and rehabilitation, redress and reparation in all places of detention.”

The case of Baby Asha

In the past weeks, mass protests of medical workers and civilians have stopped a one-year-old Nepalese girl being brought back to a refugee camp on the remote island of Nauru. Medical workers at the Lady Cilento children’s hospital in Brisbane, where the girl was treated for serious burns, refused to hand her over to the authorities. Baby Asha (a pseudonym) became a symbol for hundreds of people in Australia who face being returned to the notorious island camp after receiving medical care on the mainland.  The doctors who treated her said they cannot let her leave the hospital because the environment on Nauru is too dangerous for her.

The Australian government recently said that the baby and her parents will not immediately be sent back to Nauru, however, they could later be deported should they be found not to be genuine refugees.

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