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Re-election at what cost?

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The policy agenda at AMSA’s most recent Council Meeting was huge. Our burgeoning global health arm, in particular, had put in an enormous effort to update existing policy and draft more besides. One of these was an extension of AMSA’s support for the health and human rights of asylum seekers and refugees.

Just two weeks after our meeting, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a new policy that read like a piece of satire straight out of The Onion.

Our government will now automatically reject any person who seeks asylum in Australia, by exporting them to Papua New Guinea and leaving them there even after they are confirmed as a refugee. Note that this is only for “boat people”; plane people are OK. It’s no wonder so many Australians have trouble distinguishing their right from their left.

Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights affords everyone the right to seek asylum. The legal hurdles to implementing this policy are significant but, if overcome, its immorality will remain.

Asylum seekers and refugees already tend to suffer significant physical and mental health disadvantages, which is completely unsurprising from a social determinants perspective.

As medical students and doctors, we have a very legitimate interest in ensuring these disadvantages are addressed, and certainly not exacerbated.

The AMA recognises this in its 2011 position statement, Health Care of Asylum Seekers and Refugees.

It calls for asylum seekers and refugees to be treated with compassion, respect and dignity.

At point 11, the statement calls on medical practitioners to “…at all times insist that the rights of their patients be respected and not allow lower standards of care to be provided.”

The statement further asks at point 16 that governments “…strive to achieve world’s best practice in all Australian detention centres, whether located within Australia or offshore.”

AMSA has looked at both of these issues and is deeply troubled by the Papua New Guinea plan.

With regard to standards of care, the Australian Government’s own smarttraveller.gov.au site says, “Health care facilities in Papua New Guinea, including in the capital Port Moresby, are poor by Australian standards.”

AusAID cites Papua New Guinea’s social indicators as “among the worst in the Asia Pacific”, and describes the significant risks of HIV, tuberculosis and cholera infection, as well as the country’s pronounced rates of maternal and child mortality.

Homosexuality is illegal in Papua New Guinea, engendering a tragic irony for those seeking asylum because of persecution based on their sexual orientation.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has inspected the detention centre on Manus Island twice this year, reporting “…poor physical conditions within open-ended, mandatory and arbitrary detention settings.”

Even if resettled in Australia, refugees’ battle is uphill. I recall those I met in the under-resourced Friday morning clinic at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead: dental caries in almost every refugee child’s mouth, a reliance on charity, and behavioural issues steeped in years of enduring very challenging living environments.

Rather than reject the new asylum seeker agreement, Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott has criticised the conditions associated with increased foreign aid that will be paid to Papua New Guinea, and suggested Labor breached the caretaker government conventions by signing a memorandum of understanding after the election had been called.

Australian Greens Leader Senator Christine Milne branded the agreement “refugee cruelty” and “ruthless electioneering”, and would rather see an end to deterrence and a better regional approach, coupled by an emergency humanitarian intake from Indonesia and Malaysia of at least 3800 people.

Since Mr Rudd’s announcement on 19 July, he has called the election. His pollsters’ view is obviously that more votes can be won with a policy like this, than without.

For humanity’s sake, let’s all hope they are wrong. This is not good policy, this doesn’t deserve to win votes on September 7. This deserves condemnation from those of us with a voice.

If you care about the health and wellbeing of some of the world’s most vulnerable people, please join AMSA in opposing such callousness.

Out of sight is not out of mind for all of us.

Benjamin Veness is President of the Australian Medical Students’ Association. He is studying medicine and a Master of Public Health at The University of Sydney. Follow Ben on Twitter @venessb and @yourAMSA