Nurses and midwives stand up for refugees


This International Refugee Week, NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association General Secretary Brett Holmes writes about why nurses and midwives are standing up for the rights of those seeking asylum on our shores.

As nurses and midwives, we believe the health and safety of all people should be the highest priority in our society, regardless of who you are or where you come from.

In fact, three principles of the World Health Organisation Constitution state:

  • The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without the distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.
  • The health of all peoples is fundamental to the attainment of peace and security and is dependent on the fullest co-operation of individuals and States; and
  • The achievement of any State in the promotion and protection of health is of value to all.

The Australian way of life has long been symbolic for its ability to pull people together in times of need and lend a hand to those in need.

In recent years, our government has deliberately chosen to use harsh, divisive language to dehumanise the plight of people seeking refuge in Australia.  Negative behaviour displayed by government does not bring communities together, it further divides and creates fear.

Take, for example, the government’s draconian Border Force Act which came into effect on 1 July 2015.  It aims to silence the very people whose professional obligation it is to speak out and advocate for those in their care such as, nurses and midwives, doctors, social workers, teachers and lawyers.

The Border Force Act states anyone who has worked on Nauru or Manus Island cannot speak about what they’ve witnessed – this includes access to and quality of health care, sexual abuse and other violence or conditions.

Any breaches of the Act are punishable by up to two years jail.

We condemn this Act and call for its repeal, because professional duty of care cannot be dismissed due to a legal obligation to report abuse or to prevent further harm.

Remarkably, people still ask why the Nurses and Midwives’ are involved in a campaign to stand up for refugees.  They don’t realise this Act fundamentally goes against our principles as nurses and midwives.

Nursing encompasses autonomous and collaborative care of individuals of all ages, groups and communities, sick or well and in all settings.  That’s why it is no surprise many nurses have spoken out about what they’ve witnessed:

Former detention paediatric nurse, Alannah , has described how on Nauru male guards watched over showers where the women washed and offered them longer showers in exchange for sexual favours.

She also described the lack of sanitary items for women – forcing women to try and confine their menstruation with makeshift materials and clothes, as guards taunted them with threats of sexual abuse.

Registered nurse Marianne has described how detainees on Nauru, including children, were addressed by their boat number and not their names. How they slept in open tents on stretchers or boards, constantly surrounded by security guards, rats and mice.

Marianne said suicide attempts, self-harm, including sewing together lips and hunger strikes, became increasingly common and gastro-enteritis was rife due to the insanitary conditions and lack of fresh water.

While mental health nurse Christine says the conditions at Christmas Island exacerbated a combination of post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression amongst refugees and asylum seekers.

Christine describes how guards would enter the rooms of detainees late at night with a single plastic bag and warn them they had two minutes to pack and leave for the detention camp on Nauru – these threats would terrify families for weeks.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states:

  • No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
  • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
  • Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy, in other countries, asylum from persecution.

Our government has done little to deal with issues reported at detention camps but it is more than happy to gag those who need to advocate for the most venerable.

As a wealthy nation, Australia has a moral obligation to do more to address this global humanitarian crisis.  We must accept significantly more refugees to our country and we must treat those refugees more humanely.

Despite what our government seems to think – to seek refuge is NOT illegal.  To seek refuge is a fundamental human right.

Nurses and Midwives stand up for a fair go for all. Together, we will continue to stand up for refugees!

This article was adapted from Brett Holmes’ speech at the Stand Up for Refugees rally, 11 October 2015


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