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