News

Australian doctors refuse to discharge refugee girl into government detention

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i930 (Published 15 February 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i930
  1. Michael Woodhead
  1. Sydney

Paediatricians at a Brisbane hospital are defying the Australian government by refusing to discharge the child of an asylum seeker, saying that she faces unsafe conditions in an offshore immigration detention centre.

Doctors at the Lady Cilento Hospital said that it was their ethical duty not to release the 12 month old, known as Baby Asha, into conditions that even the Immigration Department’s own doctors have admitted were harmful to children.

Baby Asha is recovering from burn injuries she sustained while living in a tent in the Australian run immigration detention camp on the Pacific island of Nauru. She is one of 69 asylum seeker children facing deportation back to the island after being flown to Australia for medical treatment.

“As is the case with every child who presents at the hospital, this patient will only be discharged once a suitable home environment is identified,” a spokesman for the hospital said.

The doctors’ move has received widespread backing, including from the Australian Medical Association and Queensland’s Labour state government.

“They want children treated the best possible way. That’s their responsibility, and they have my support in doing that,” said Queensland’s health minister, Cameron Dick.1

The Australian government has shown no sign of backing down on its hardline detention policy on asylum seekers, which it says deters people from risking their lives on boat trips to Australia. The government and the Immigration Department have refused to comment on the situation with Baby Asha.

This week leading Australian paediatricians signed an open letter to the prime minister condemning his government’s policy of detaining asylum seekers as a deterrent to people smuggling.2 The letter, under the auspices of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, said that it was a breach of the Declaration of Helsinki to subject people without their consent to harsh treatment supposedly for the benefit of others.

“A person with two good kidneys cannot be conscripted without consent to donate one kidney for transplantation even when that transplant would likely be life saving. The principle is the same [for asylum seeker detention],” they wrote.

On 8 February John Brayley, the chief medical officer for the Australian Border Force, admitted that detention was harmful for children, who showed high rates of trauma, self harm, and mental illness.

“The scientific evidence is that detention affects the mental state of children—it is deleterious. And for that reason, children should not be in detention,” he told a hearing in the Australian Senate.3

Brayley said that he had only an advisory role, with no power to over-rule decisions made by Immigration Department officials.

The head of the Immigration Department, Mike Pezzullo, said that the government’s policy was to remove children from detention wherever possible and that the number of children in detention had reduced substantially since the Liberal government introduced its “Pacific solution.”

References

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