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03 Jul 2015

The World Medical Association has joined calls for the Federal Government to dump new laws that threaten imprisonment for doctors who speak out about the health of asylum seekers held in immigration detention centres.

As pressure mounts on the Government to amend its controversial Border Force Protection Act to protect whistleblowers, World Medical Association President Dr Xavier Deau and WMA Chair Dr Ardis Hoven have written to Prime Minister Tony Abbott to protest against the law, which they said effectively silenced doctors who addressed the health conditions of asylum seekers.

“This is in striking conflict with basic principles of medical ethics,” Dr Deau and Dr Hoven wrote in their letter. “Physicians have to raise their voice, if necessary publicly, when health conditions of their patients, be those free or in detention, are unacceptable.”

Their criticisms echoed concerns raised by AMA President Professor Brian Owler, who told ABC's Lateline program that the laws were designed “to intimidate people against speaking out. There is no reason why doctors, nurses, and other health care workers should be stopped from speaking up about concerns that they have for the care of their patients, whether they're detainees or anyone else in our society.”

The WMA leaders declared their support for doctors who advocate for their patients and speak out.

The recent AMA National Conference unanimously supported a notice of motion from Doctors for Refugees co-founder Dr Richard Kidd asking the AMA Federal Council to lobby the Government to exempt from prosecution medical practitioners who blow the whistle on poor health care in detention centres.

Dr Ai-Lene Chan, a GP who worked at the Nauru detention centre, together with colleagues Dr Peter Young and Dr David Isaacs, has warned that the new laws place doctors working in detention centres in an increasingly invidious position.

“The Australian Border Force Act directly challenges professional codes of ethical conduct, including the safeguard of clinical independence and professional integrity from demands of third parties and governments,” they wrote. “The legislation aims to silence health professionals and others who advocate for their patients.”

Separately, a group of more than 40 health, teaching and welfare workers who have worked at the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres have written an open letter to the Government pledging to campaign against the Border Force Act provisions.

Dr Deau said the provisions of the Border Force Protection Act were “effectively an attempt by the Australian government to gag physicians by making their advocacy for the health care of asylum seekers in Australian detention camps a criminal offence. Such a procedure is not acceptable”.

But Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has attempted to hose down the criticism by declaring that whistleblowers had nothing to fear under the new Act.

“Any person who makes a public interest disclosure, as defined within the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013, will not be subject to any criminal prosecution under the ABF Act,” the Minister said. “While the Government will take action to protect operationally sensitive information, such as personal information or information which compromises the operational effectiveness or response of our officers, the airing of general claims about conditions in immigration facilities will not breach the ABF Act.”

But Mr Dutton’s statement has so far failed to allay concerns that doctors raising legitimate concerns about the treatment of asylum seekers will not face prosecution.

Royal Australian College of Physicians President Professor Nick Talley said the law “attempts to tie our hands to prevent us from fulfilling our duty for a vulnerable group of children and adults with complex health care needs”.

Adrian Rollins


Published: 03 Jul 2015