Doctors fight on over refugee gag

3 minute read

Challenging the government over healthcare conditions in immigration centres is an ethical duty for doctors


Advocacy group Doctors For Refugees is pressing ahead with a High Court challenge against the Border Force Act despite a recent victory in having health professionals excluded from the act’s gag provisions.

Sydney GP Dr Barri Phartafod said doctors had an ethical duty to address the “dangerous lack of care” affecting asylum seekers at mainland and offshore immigration detention centres.

“We informed the federal government a week ago that we are still going ahead with the constitutional challenge,” Dr Phatarfod told a Sydney rally, flanked by RACGP President Dr Bastian Seidel and AMA NSW Vice President Dr Kean-Seng Lim.

Doctors who reviewed the medical records of people in detention were well aware of many cases of mistakes, abuse and neglect that were often covered up, she said, addressing a crowd of 4500 at the November 5 event.

Doctors, nurses, midwives and psychologists were removed last month from the definition of immigration and border force workers subject to gag orders under the act.  But teachers and social workers still face the threat of two years’ jail if they speak out.

Dr David Berger, an emergency physician in Broome, said the government had not amended the Border Force Act on a whim, but because doctors had a powerful voice and authorities did not want the public to know what went on.

“They have done it because of mass protests by health professionals last year, the Lady Cilento Hospital act of civil disobedience this year, and Doctors for Refugees’ current and continuing legal challenge to the constitutionality of the act.”

Dr Berger said the case of Dr Munjed Al Muderis, who spent almost a year in Curtin detention centre in Western Australia after arriving by boat as a refugee in 1999, showed the “idiocy” of Australia’s policy.

Now a world-leading osseo-integration expert and a squadron leader in the RAAF Reserve, Dr Al Muderis would be barred from Australia, even as a tourist, under a recent proposal to put a permanent ban on boat arrivals.

The Sydney-based surgeon, who fled Iraq after his boss was executed for refusing to cut off the ears of army deserters, said Curtin was a “hell on earth” where he was reduced to a number (982), ate the same food every day and night, and feared for unaccompanied minors held among more than 1000 adult men.

Now, he saw “scary moves toward xenophobia and racism” in Australia.

“As a doctor, I have to treat a patient regardless of race, ethnicity and background,” Dr Al Muderis said. “I think Australia has the same obligations (to refugees seeking help).”

Doctors For Refugees are demanding reinstatement of an independent panel of medical professionals to oversee healthcare in immigration facilities and the closure of detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

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