Issue 32 / 29 August 2011

ONE of the pleasures and privileges of the AMA presidency is being able to use the position to convey views and opinions widely held by AMA members and the medical profession generally.

It is even more satisfying when you have the opportunity to express those views to an audience that includes the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader.

The AM A’s position that mandatory detention is harmful to the physical and mental health of asylum seekers — especially children — is not new. We have been raising concerns about the health of asylum seekers for more than a decade.

But in politics timing is everything. My remarks to the recent AMA Parliamentary Dinner in Canberra came at a time when the asylum seeker debate in this country is at a heated, divisive and ugly juncture.

It is time to inject compassion and humanity into this controversial issue.

The AMA rightly believes that the system of mandatory detention of asylum seekers is inherently harmful to the physical and mental health of detainees. The harm is especially acute in the case of children.

Despite improvements in the provision of health care to immigration detainees, the policy of mandatory detention and the remote location of detention centres mean that the health status of detainees continues to decline.

As the peak representative body of Australian doctors, the AMA has chosen to voice its concerns about an ethical and public health issue.

However, we are staying clear of the politics. We are clearly focused on the health aspects, which also touch on human rights, ethics and the right thing to do.

Our government must do all that is possible to ensure that these poor people are assured access to quality health care. These are damaged people desperately seeking a new life in this country. They are often fleeing diabolical situations in their home country.

Yes, they can bring problems with them — problems that many Australians could not possibly envisage.

Some of them have been through torture and some of them have been through physical health problems. They are well acquainted with fear, danger and desperation. They seek hope and peace — and a future.

Then they arrive here and find themselves in mandatory detention. Their mental health issues get worse the longer they are in detention.

Some of these asylum seekers are in detention for more than a year. Currently there are about 350 children among the detainees in Australia. In Darwin alone, there are 179 children in detention, and 81 are unaccompanied by parents or adult relatives.

These children should not be in detention. A large number of them will eventually become Australian citizens. Why put them through this mental hell?

Paediatricians and psychiatrists in the field share some terrible stories about what is happening to people in detention. We’ve had a 9-year-old child who made a serious suicide attempt. That is just shocking.

Because of the remoteness of many of these detention centres, it is difficult to provide them with health services.

If asylum seekers are in the community, they have access to schools, good health care, and good psychiatric support. These poor children should be in the community, not in detention.

The AMA will continue to speak out on behalf of these people who do not have a voice.

We have updated our position statement on the health care of asylum seekers and refugees and I would invite all doctors to read it.

We will continue to raise this issue with politicians and in the media.

The response to my comments in the media has been overwhelmingly positive — from AMA doctors, non-members and the public.

It is important that doctors speak out on important health matters and it is important that they continue to do so, despite some misinformed responses. And it is important that the AMA is the leading medical voice on these issues.

Dr Steve Hambleton is the federal president of the AMA.

Posted 29 August 2011

6 thoughts on “Steve Hambleton: Standing up for refugees

  1. Greg Hockings says:

    I have been a member of the AMA since my intern year in 1979 (apart from a very brief and unintended hiatus). I accept that I will not agree with all decisions and policies of the AMA, but have always believed that it is important for the medical profession to have a strong, outwardly united voice in medico-political matters and I have at times encouraged colleagues to join the AMA for this reason.
    However, I disagree so strongly with Dr Hambleton’s comments on this issue, apparently made on behalf of all AMA members, that I will now give very serious consideration to resigning my AMA membership.
    Dr Hambleton has in his comments done exactly what he said he would not do – become involved in the politics of asylum seekers. I would have no problem if he had called for better access to health care services for asylum seekers, more resources, etc. But to call on behalf of the entire AMA membership for an end to mandatory detention cannot be interpreted as anything other than a political statement.
    Presumably this is not the appropriate forum to debate the politics of border protection, refugees and asylum seekers (although I would be happy to do so). Let me just say that there are many caring, compassionate people in this country, and I am sure in our profession, who have a different political opinion to Dr Hambleton. Who gave him the right to speak on behalf of the entire AMA membership on this issue? Did he indicate when he nominated for the AMA presidency that he intended to make this stand? Did he give the AMA members the opportunity to express their opinion in a plebisicite before claiming to represent their political views in front of the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader?
    I call on the AMA Federal Executive to require Dr Hambleton to repudiate his comments or stand down as federal president.

  2. Dianna Kenny says:

    Mandatory detention is not soley a political issue. It is also a medical issue and a humanitarian issue. Some issues are indivisible and cannot be segmented neatly into political, medical, or humanitarian. The evidence is in that mandatory detention is harmful to the physical and psychological well being of people, particularly those who have been displaced and traumatised. The question must be asked,”On what principles is our society founded?” If not humanitarian, we are a sad, sick society indeed.

  3. Kim Hansen says:

    I thank Steve Hambleton and the AMA for speaking out strongly against mandatory detention and the appalling lack of health care of asylum seekers. We are simply creating psychiatric patients to fill our clinics and hospitals for decades to come by locking up these people. Give them access to health care (some job prospects and education would help too) and we can stop this travesty.
    This is not political, this is about health care for all people in Australia.

  4. halcyon says:

    Here, here Greg Hockings; you have said it all. The issue is not the effects of detention, rather the presumption of Dr Hambleton to speak on behalf of all members on the issue of mandatory detention. I was surprised at the political, not medical stance taken by the AMA; stick to medical issues and medical politics please.

  5. FRT says:

    I was dismayed by Dr Hambleton taking on a political
    position regarding asylum seekers and mandatory detention.
    Tha is not his brief to make such a statement on behalf of the AMA. I totally concur with the views expressed by Greg Hocking.

  6. anon medical practitioner says:

    I agree with Greg Hocking. Good on you for having the courage to say that. I am an AMA member. This is an unacceptable intrusion into politics. Unfortunately many around me have become so politically correct, that I can not declare my position with out it compromising my job.

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