Report: AMA forum on asylum seeker health

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Lynne of the NSWNMA went along to the Australian Medical Association (AMA) forum on asylum seeker health on Sunday. Here’s her report of a passionate and informative event.

I was one of several nurses in the audience. Annie Butler of the ANMF flew up from Melbourne to attend and during the question and answer session gave a strong endorsement of the AMA’s stand. [See the ANMF statement towards the end of this article.]

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Paediatric nurse Alanna Maycock with Annie Butler of the ANMF.

The first speaker was Professor Elizabeth Elliott, a professor in paediatrics and child health, who visited Christmas Island in 2014, when there were 100 families and 200 children. Professor Elliot wrote the February 2015 report The Forgotten Children. She says the the government is persisting with off-shore detention despite the fact that 90 percent of refugees who had been processed previously were genuine refugees.

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Professor Elizabeth Elliott.

Professor Elliott said that the ‘never to be settled in Australia’ policy left asylum seekers feeling absolutely hopeless – the human cost is enormous and the cost to the government is billions.

People in this environment were living in a ‘toxic’ environment – they suffered nightmares, were self harming, and some mothers were so traumatised they couldn’t bond with their babies nor care for them.

In Wickham Detention Centre Darwin, where 69 children from Nauru were sent for health care, 90 percent felt a strong sense of hopelessness and 95 percent were at risk of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  These children sent a message to the PM: No fences ever! You can do anything to us as long as we don’t have to go back to Nauru!

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The panel takes questions from the audience.

Paediatric nurse Allanna Maycock gave an incredibly moving account of what she observed in Nauru in 2015 when she visited with Professor David Isaacs (Professor of Paediatric Infectious Diseases at Sydney Uni).

Allanna set the scene of where the detention centre is – in the middle of Nauru on an old phosphate mining area.  The medical centre is four kilometres away – a big problem.

People with kids under five years of age live in very small huts and the families who have children over five are housed in tents. Showers have little if any privacy – a flimsy shower curtain allows guards to observe females showering.  The shower and toilet blocks are up to 100 metres away from the accommodation – and because they have to pass the guards day and night, residents are terrified of having to visit the ablutions block. Allana went into the many details of what she observed – which were absolutely shocking to me.

She said there are “Dark challenges on Nauru – where guards and others can do what they like” without any checks on their behaviour. The 2015 Border Force Act made it extremely hard for health workers and others to speak out about what they have seen on their visits to detention centres.

The next speaker Professor David Issacs said that while Australia’s treatment of refugees is good, the  treatment of asylum seekers is appalling. He said this treatment, especially of the children, can be viewed as torture.  There are currently 3251 people in detention centres and of those, 1459 are on Nauru or Manus.  Eighty five percent of Australian paediatricians have said that detention of children is child abuse and he said conditions could be compared with Guantanamo Bay.

However, as he explained, most Guantanamo Bay inmates knew they were involved in wars – they knew the consequences if they were caught. They were subject to overt torture, for example waterboarding. The mental health issues suffered from detention on Guantanamo were multiple.

By comparison, the people on Nauru/Manus are actually fleeing war – they did not know what the outcome would be on arriving in Australia as the result of the ‘protection of Australian borders policies’. Their mental health issues are huge and multiple too.

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A/Professor Brian Owler then spoke passionately, imploring health professionals to practice their ethical and moral obligations in order to protect the people in their care from risk of harm.  They must stand together. He called on the PM for something to be done about the treatment of asylum seekers as ‘it was pulling apart the moral fabric of this country’.

Professor Owler compared the fact that boat people in 1970 were welcomed and have made incredible contributions to this country, whereas today’s boat people are treated like criminals (or worse). Governmental language is now confusing the issue – they talk about ‘terrorists and illegals’.  The Government is indifferent to the mental health issues caused by incarceration.

Owler reiterated that detention is harmful for all – children and adults.

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Professor Brian Owler.

He reminded us that the Abbott Government disbanded the independent panel of doctors and nurses who made recommendations about asylum seekers to the government.

Dr Owler called for changes by the government to address these issues:

  • A moratorium for asylum seeker children who are in Australia for health reasons – not to be sent back to detention centres
  • Immediate release of people in detention centres
  • Reintroduction of the independent panel of health workers
  • Stop removing people in the ‘dead of night’
  • Stop intimidating health professionals.

Quite a few people at the forum called for a national boycott by health professionals of work in detention centres.  The AMA did not agree with this, as to lock health professionals out of the centres would mean we would then not know what is going on there. Professor Owler said he knows the detention centre company is actively recruiting overseas health professionals to work in these centres. He also said that health professionals working in these centres must practise ‘good not sloppy’ medicine. He had been appalled at what he has been told by some of his members of the unprofessional treatment of detainees by some medicos in detention centres.

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All in all, this was a very worthwhile though dispiriting forum.

Update: The day after the forum, the ANMF released a statement which said in part

We welcomed the opportunity to be part of the discussion at the AMA-convened Forum of health professionals held in Sydney yesterday, which called for a ‘moratorium on asylum seeker children being sent back to detention centres and the immediate release of all children from off-shore and on-shore detention into the community where they can be properly cared for.’

The ANMF has a long history of campaigning against the detention of refugees and asylum seekers; at the ANMF’s Biennial National Conference last year, our members unanimously passed a series of resolutions condemning current immigration detention policy and last year’s Border Force Act, preventing nurses and doctors from speaking up about the deplorable conditions in detention centres. So we did not hesitate to stand with the AMA on this issue.

At the Forum, nurses and doctors described the appalling treatment of refugees and asylum seekers they had witnessed; unsanitary and dangerous conditions and lack of access to even basic health care. They warned about the physical, mental and emotional horrors children are suffering in detention, a child as young as six trying to suicide, or a 15-year-old sewing their lips together.

Places like Nauru, Manus Island and Christmas Island, are no places for children. In fact, detention on these islands is a form of abuse.

The Minister is on notice: he has a moral obligation to listen to the nurses, doctors and the other health professionals who continue to warn the Government about the dangers of keeping infants and children locked up.

Previously on Nurse Uncut:

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