AMSA President Elise Buisson on Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers
The following is AMSA President Elise Buisson’s address at the 2016 AMSA Global Health Conference in Newcastle. Ms Buisson spoke to 700 medical students about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, and the responsibility of doctors to take action against indefinite detention.
I want you to imagine that were somewhere nice and warm. You’re in France, lying safe and at home on a sunny beach in Nice, wearing long loose, comfortable clothing and soaking up some sun. That is until armed police showed up and require you to take off parts of your clothing. It sounds like a dystopian future, doesn’t it? But we all know it happened this week in France. Because in France, the burkini, is outlawed. And it’s outlawed on the basis of the fact that it’s believed in France that wearing it means that you’re not “adhering to good morals and secularism”. Now I have just one question about that, and that is, are you kidding me? That is exactly the same rhetoric used in other parts of the world to force women to wear the exact same piece of clothing; that they’re not “adhering to good morals and religion”. And I think we all know that the clothing was never the problem. The item of clothing has no inherent moral value. The problem was always whether or not women had a choice that they wanted to wear it or that they didn’t. Whether you’re politicising women’s bodies for religion or for secularism, you’re promoting division either way.
Meanwhile, in the Australian Senate, Pauline Hanson has mostly moved on from the Asian and then Indigenous peoples that she vilified in the earlier parts of her career, to claiming that it’s now Muslims who are ruining our way of life. Now if Pauline ever does come down to visit me in Campbelltown, Western Sydney, and partake of a Halal Snack Pack, I’d love to ask her: what is that way of life that you’re protecting? What do we most value and want to preserve about being Australian? Is the Australian way of life the Cronulla riots? Is the Australian way of life the Reclaim Australia rallies? Because I think we all know that we’re proud to be Australian for the opposite of those reasons. Proud because the national code of conduct is one of working hard, looking out for your mates, and not taking life, or yourself, too seriously. Is that the way of life that Pauline Hanson embodies? When a politician taps into something you fear, don’t fall for the rhetoric. Refuse to be used against yourself.
We find ourselves living in a time when all around the world, we are seeing the rise of the politics of fear, and policies of division. When our nation’s Treasurer frames the Australian population as the lifters and the leaners. The taxed and the taxed-nots. The leaders of our nation are trying to take human beings and put them into two clean columns and label just one of them as worthwhile. I want to take a moment to reflect on the fact that as a group of people who are at the hospital without pay during working hours, then studying lectures and tutorials after-hours, and therefore rarely working enough to pay tax and often instead receiving a student Centrelink payment, as defined by your politicians the people in this room are the taxed-nots. In a divided society, we’re the leaners.
I believe that we, as the future of the medical profession, have a significant role to play in reversing the politics of fear. Our profession inherently stands for unity. We treat people regardless of their race, religion, gender, sexuality, political affiliation, and bikini, burkini or mankini. No matter who a person is, when they walk into a clinic or an office or a theatre, we will do our best for them. Now that is the Australian way of life. No matter who you are, we will do our best for you. There’s a question I want to ask you: in a political environment when a nation is being encouraged to turn in on itself, what do you think becomes of the most vulnerable in that society? You already know the answer. We’ve heard the answer over and over again already at this conference. We heard it when Julian Burnside spoke on the first morning.
We live in a time where the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea says “indefinite detention of asylum seekers is illegal”, the United Nations says “Australia is violating the Convention Against Torture”, the Nauru files say, “children are being abused”, and the Prime Minister of our country says… “can’t be misty eyed”. In this, our role is clear. The medical profession stands for the physical and mental health of all. Indefinite detention harms health, so indefinite detention is not acceptable public policy. It has been tried, and it has failed, and the Australian public has been failed by all sides of politics who have allowed this practice to continue. We can try to make it sound more complicated than that by deferring to the wisdom of the political powers that be or referencing lives lost at sea. But nations are culpable for what they allow their political leaders to do when they do those things in plain sight. And our national conscience isn’t unburdened if people are now dying in their homeland instead of drowning off our shores.
So where does the buck stop? Is it with the guards who stand accused of witnessing and even perpetrating abuses of those in their care? Is it with the media who report on asylum seekers as potential terrorists? Is it with our politicians, who call asylum seekers “illegals”, in full knowledge of the fact that it is legal to seek asylum, even to Australia, even by boat, even without papers? The answer, it seems obvious, is yes, and yes, and yes. And yet the buck has not stopped and neither has the indefinite detention of persecuted people who have done nothing wrong.
Whenever terrible things happen in the world, at some point a little later on, the world reflects and says, “how could that possibly have happened? How could a whole nation possible have allowed that to go on, right under their noses?” People ask those questions again and again because they’re looking for an explanation for how a whole nation of people turns out to be just awful. But that’s just it. Atrocities throughout history didn’t happen because nations were awful. They happened because people read it in the papers and heard it on the news, but they convinced themselves that it wasn’t their problem, and they stood idly by. There’s this technique that politicians use in interviews, you’ve all seen it. The interviewer asks them a question that, as a leader of our nation they should rightfully be able to answer. But they don’t answer. Instead they say over and over again, “It was the other party that caused this problem” as if that abdicates the current leadership’s responsibility to fix the problem now. If you want to lead this country, you get it with all its victories and all its failures, and you lead us as a nation forward from wherever you find us.
Now, in a funny way, we as medical students find ourselves in a similar position. Doctors and nurses and allied health, we lead the health of this country and we do it from the coalface. Now we can say that indefinite offshore detention is a problem created by the government, which is absolutely true. But regardless, we’ve chosen to take a position of responsibility for this nation’s health – every doctor has – and asylum seekers are under the care of our nation. So even though we aren’t responsible for the creation of this problem, it’s going to be on us to help solve it, and get these people to conditions where they are safe, and well.
If we do not take the lead in protecting the health of the most vulnerable people in our society being put at risk, we have squandered the respect afforded to our profession. We pledge when we become doctors: “I will maintain the utmost respect for human life.” That isn’t a passive requirement, it’s a powerful one. I will maintain the utmost respect for human life. I will not allow human life to be locked up indefinitely without cause and deprived of hope.
Being the President of AMSA this year has taught me a lot of things, but maybe even more importantly, it’s left me with a lot of questions. First and foremost being, “Why are we here?” Here in AMSA, here at this conference, here in medical school. Are we here to fight for our jobs, our education, our quality of life? There’s nothing wrong with caring about those things. Everyone cares about those things. But if that’s all that we’re here for, we should just about pack up and go home. In a fair society, you only get to ask for more for yourself when you’re putting what you currently have to good use.
And what do we already have? We have a bright future. We have a world-class education. Since the release of the Nauru files, we have more insight into the situation facing our asylum seekers than ever before. And we have an opportunity, when historians re-examine this period of time looking for what went wrong, not to be the people who stood idly by.
It’s time that we showed that the Australian way of life, and the courage of the medical profession, are alive and well. I know the people in this room care about this issue, it’s why we’re here. But we’re not a higher moral class of bystander if we come to a global health conference, or if we know that we care about the issue deep down inside. We need to put our actions where our ideals are and do something.
Or better yet, let’s do something together. Be a part of a united voice: we are the future of the medical profession in this country, and we will not stand idly by. You’re about to get a notification on your app during this conference – if you’re ready to take action, it’ll show you how you can do it with me. The day I first watched Julian Burnside speak, he was asked a question from the crowd about what he believes the future holds. And he said, “This issue will not be resolved in my time. But I’ll die knowing I did my best for them.” Let’s do the best we can for them. After all, that’s the Australian way of life.
Elise Buisson is a medical student at Western Sydney University.