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Detention Centre Medical Staff refuse to be Silenced by Abbott’s Border Force Bill

July 1, 2015


More than 40 current and former workers at Australia’s detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island have today challenged Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to prosecute them under controversial new secrecy laws for speaking out over human rights abuses.

The so-called Australian Border Force Bill 2015, which comes into effect today, imposes a two-year jail sentence on health professionals who discuss the conditions they encounter in offshore detention centres.

Julian Burnside QC says he will be among the many lawyers “falling over themselves” to defend doctors and health care workers accused of breaching the new secrecy laws.

“If you genuinely believe things that are happening are a threat to the life or health of any individual in detention and you speak out about it and then you get prosecuted, which is very unlikely, I will put together the best pro bono defence [you’ve ever seen],” Mr Burnside pledged.

“And I expect we will have people falling over themselves to be part of it.”

Doctors have recently brought to light a number of shocking instances of mistreatment and neglect by offshore detention centres.

In January, 15 doctors submitted a letter of concern outlining “numerous unsafe practice and gross departures from generally accepted, medical standards” that have caused considerable harm to patients.

In May, doctors raised the alarm over an 11-year-old boy living on Nauru who could be permanently disabled due to delayed surgery to treat an arm fracture. The death of a 24-year-old asylum seeker from septicaemia last year was also put down to the lack of medical attention he received on Manus Island.

The medical community has warned that the new laws will act as a powerful disincentive against whistleblowing but Mr Burnside said he doubted the government would go after doctors who speak out.

“I don’t think the government will ever be stupid enough to prosecute when, at the centre of the case, will be evidence that made the person believe that there was a threat to the life or health of a person in detention,” he said.

“The Minister for Immigration would have to be a complete idiot to prosecute a health worker for making a disclosure of that sort.”

“Whether he’s sufficiently idiotic to do that is a matter for other people to assess,” he said.

Mr Burnside believes the public has been either “misled or anaesthetised” on the issue of asylum seekers and that getting the truth out to a larger audience is crucial to shifting views.

“We are doing things that are so shameful it would be a crime to remain silent about it. Anyone who knows the facts really ought to speak out, because until enough people speak out these dreadful things will continue to happen.”

The Australian Lawyers Alliance last month warned that medical professionals could be sued or subject to professional misconduct proceedings for complying with the law.

“A doctor is bound to act in the best interests of their patient, by virtue of their profession,” Dr Andrew Morrison, SC, said.

The law could prevent doctors from complying with the Medical Board of Australia’s codes of conduct: “The government’s new Border Force Act leaves doctors in an impossible position. It is basically asking doctors to choose between themselves and their patients.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 1, 2015 11:10 am

    “The Minister for Immigration would have to be a complete idiot to prosecute a health worker for making a disclosure of that sort.”

    I believe the Minister for Immigration is sufficiently qualified in that respect.

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