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Doctors ‘obliged’ to speak out on asylum seeker health

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AMA President Professor Brian Owler has accused the Federal Government of trying to intimidate doctors and other health workers from speaking out about the treatment of asylum seekers being held in immigration detention centres.

The AMA President has mounted a strongly-worded attack on controversial provisions in the Government’s Border Force Act aimed at gagging whistleblowers amid mounting claims that many detainees – including children – have been sexually and physically abused while in custody.

Professor Owler said doctors were ethical and morally obliged to advocate for the welfare of their patients, and the new laws – which threaten up to two years imprisonment for unauthorised disclosures – placed them in an invidious position.

“As doctors, we have an ethical and moral obligation to speak out if we have concerns about the welfare of our patients, whether it be the treatment of an individual or whether it be at a system level,” he said.

Asked if the AMA was advising doctors to refuse to work in detention centres under these conditions, the President said that it “wouldn’t matter what I said, I suspect. I think doctors would vote with their feet and they would go and provide health care to asylum seekers, because that’s what they do”.

“Doctors will always go and look after the patient, and they will put their own interests second.”

The apparent attempt to gag critics has come against the background of ongoing reports of abuse and assault at detention centres.

The independent Moss review of allegations of abuse at the Nauru detention centre, released in March, found evidence of rape, the sexual assault of minors, and guards trading marijuana for sexual favours from female detainees.

Despite this, a separate Senate committee inquiry heard last month that no detention centre staff accused of abusing children have been charged.

Transfield, which has a $1.2 billion contract to operate the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres, said that of 67 allegations, just 12 had been referred to police.

In other testimony, a former senior doctor with Immigration Department contractor International Health and Medical Services, Dr Peter Young, told the Senate committee that medical staff were directed not to report mental health problems.

Dr Young, who was director of mental health for IHMS, said he was told several times not to report that asylum seeker mental health had been harmed by being detained at the Nauru detention centre.

Separately, the Government-appointed Council on Asylum Seekers and Detention has been told that detainees begin to suffer serious mental health problems within three months of incarceration.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has sought to provide assurances that health workers who spoke out would not be prosecuted under the Act, but Professor Owler said much more was needed.

“The AMA has been concerned about the provision of health care to asylum seekers, particularly those in the offshore processing centres of Nauru and Manus Island,” he said. “Legal advisers have confirmed that the Act provides penalties, including potential imprisonment for doctors, nurses and other health workers who speak out about abuse or the wellbeing of asylum seekers.”

Professor Owler said that if medical whistleblowers were not liable for prosecution, then “it should be clearly and directly spelt out in the legislation”.

“We call for this exemption because, for a doctor, an asylum seeker is no less a patient than any other patient. If we are willing to compromise the rights of doctors and patients for one group, how can we ensure that other groups will not be compromised in the future?” he said.

Adrian Rollins