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12 Oct 2015

AMA President Professor Brian Owler has condemned holding children in immigration detention as a form of Government-sanctioned child abuse and praised the actions of Royal Children’s Hospital doctors in refusing to discharge patients facing return to lock-up.

“Having children in detention is a form of abuse,” Professor Owler said. “This is a systematic abuse of children that is sanctioned by the Government. There is no reason why we should have children in detention.”

RCH doctors are refusing to discharge patients they believe will be returned to detention, putting them on a collision course with the Federal Government, which shows no signs of backing down from its controversial detention policy.

There has already been at least one stand-off between doctors and Immigration Department officials over the issue. Earlier this year, medical staff refused to discharge an asylum seeker mother and her infant without a guarantee that they would not be returned to detention.

Eventually the woman, who was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and post-natal depression, and her child were released into the community.

Professor Owler said it was well established that detention was harmful to health, especially for children.

“Detention centres are not suitable environments for the health of all detainees, but the effects on children are far worse,” the AMA President said. “We know that many children suffer in these facilities, and are being exposed to things that no child should be exposed to. These children are being harmed, and it's going to have long-term consequences in terms of their psychological, but also physical, health.”

Around 100 children are currently being held in immigration detention centres within Australia, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull insisted the Government would not be changing its hardline policy regarding asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Mr Turnbull told Parliament that "nobody wants to have children in detention", but he added that the Government's "harsh" border protection policies had been effective in preventing deaths at sea.

Immigration Mininster Peter Dutton told the Sunday Herald Sun that, while he understood the concern of doctors, “Defence and Boarder Force staff on our vessels who were pulling dead kids out of the water don’t want the boats to restart”.

The action by RCH doctors, which has been backed by Victorian Health Minister Jill Hennessy and RCH Chair (and former State Liberal Health Minister) Rob Knowles, follows the passage of the Border Protection Act, under which health workers and other detention centre staff who speak out about conditions face up to two years’ imprisonment.

But Professor Owler said doctors had been put “in a very difficult position”.

“We cannot send children back to an environment where they're going to be harmed.

“The Melbourne doctors are holding true to the ethics and principles of the medical profession in raising these concerns about the health of detained children. The AMA strongly supports them.”

More than 400 RCH staff rallied on 9 October to voice their support for the doctors’ actions, and to demand that children be released from detention – a call backed by the AMA.

“There is no reason why these children need to be in detention. It is not a deterrent for the boats to stop coming. This is a matter of human rights, it's a matter of stopping systematic abuse of children that is sanctioned by the Australian Government,” Professor Owler said.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 12 Oct 2015