Australia backs down over jail terms for doctors who speak out about abuse of asylum seekers

BMJ 2016; 355 doi: (Published 20 October 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i5681
  1. Paul Smith
  1. Sydney

The Australian government has changed controversial laws that threatened doctors with jail sentences if they spoke out about human rights abuses in the country’s immigration detention centres.

Australia’s offshore detention system has been under the international spotlight amid long running claims that detainees were living in tortuous conditions, subjected to physical and sexual abuse, as well as denied adequate medical care.1 2

Under the Australian Border Force Act introduced in June last year,3 anyone classed as an “entrusted person” working for, or on behalf of, the immigration detention system could be sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for making “unauthorised” disclosures about the situation faced by detainees.

Doctors for Refugees, an activist group, recently mounted a legal challenge to the act in the Australian High Court claiming that the secrecy provision breached constitutional rights to freedom of political communication.

But it has now emerged that on 30 September the government amended the act, excluding health professionals from the definition “immigration and border protection workers.”

The change meant that the secrecy and disclosure clauses will no longer apply to doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, midwives, pharmacists, or dentists.

Barri Phatarfod, a Sydney GP and president of Doctors for Refugees, said that her group was only informed of the changes by government lawyers this week, shortly before the government was to file its defence in the High Court.4

She described the changes as a “major victory,” saying that it meant that doctors working in the system could practise according to their code of ethics and speak out about human rights abuses.

She stressed, however, that the amendments were not retrospective and still exposed to prosecution those doctors who had already gone public about the harm inflicted on detainees.

“The draconian, repressive, secret regime continues, and the real issue is whether [the amendments] will make a difference to what is happening to detainees themselves, whether the conditions they face and the care they receive changes,” she said. She also said that the threats of jail sentences still applied to other detention staff.

“Most of the information coming from the detention centres about what is going on is not from health professionals.

“It comes from other staff, such as social workers, teachers, or security guards.

“They have been the ones speaking out, giving us a clear idea of what is happening, and the [jail] threats against them remain.”

Doctors for Refugees, which has around 500 members, said it had yet to decide if it would continue its legal fight in the High Court.

The Australian Federal Government has previously said that the laws were necessary for protecting sensitive operational information and did not stop people from expressing their views about border protection policy.

In a statement a spokeswoman for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection denied that the act was designed to silence health professionals, saying that the new amendment clarified that health professionals were not subject to the act’s secrecy provisions.

Earlier this year David Isaacs,5 a Sydney paediatrician who visited the off shore detention centre on the island of Nauru in December 2014,challenged the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to prosecute himfor speaking out about the “torture-like conditions” Isaacs witnessed.6

Last year, the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Francois Crepeau, cancelled a visit to Australia saying that the country’s government could not ensure workers could speak freely without being at risk of sanction under the Border Force Act.7


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