Doctors accuse government of harming refugees

October 23, 2014

Doctors have spoken out for refugees in unprecedented numbers, as an open letter to the government signed by more than 62,000 Australians was handed to parliament on October 20.

The letter, signed by more than 240 health professionals, legal experts and academics, accuses the government of “willfully and deliberately” harming refugees.

Infant psychiatrist Professor Louise Newman convened the letter. She said Tony Abbott’s government was guilty of "persuading the public that cruelty to people who arrive by boat is justifiable on the false pretext that they are ‘illegal’, when in truth they have broken no law by coming to Australia and seeking asylum.”

Newman told the Australian Human Rights Commission that children in particular were failing to “thrive” in detention. She said that while visiting detention centres she witnessed how some children’s first word in English was “guard”, instead of “mum” or “dad”. 

Doctors for Refugees, formed to advocate for refugees in Australia and those “subjected to atrocities and displacement”, has also endorsed the petition. Co-founder Dr Barri Phatarfod said on October 19: "We have grave concerns for asylum seekers and refugees denied appropriate, timely health services and for Australian health professionals working in immigration detention centres.

“These doctors and nurses are bound by unfair and draconian contracts which deny health professionals the right to advocate for their patients and place the interests of their employer above their duties to their patients …

“The Nuremberg trials highlighted that just doing what you are told to do is no defence when human rights are abused.”

The letter has also been signed by former PM Malcolm Fraser, human rights lawyer Julian Burnside and Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

But GetUp!, which hosted the petition, says the warnings from the medical community may still fall on deaf ears in parliament.

Aware that Abbott and immigration minister Scott Morrison are operating with effective impunity, independent MP Andrew Wilkie has written to The Hague to request the International Criminal Court investigate Australia’s refugee policies instead.

“I request that you initiate a propio motu investigation … into crimes against humanity perpetrated by members of the Australian Government against persons arriving in Australian waters who are seeking protection,” he wrote.

“The individuals responsible, and appropriate to be named in an application to Pre-Trial Chamber, are the Hon Tony Abbott MP as Prime Minister and all 19 members of his cabinet including the Hon Scott Morrison MP as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.”

He said there was evidence Australia is committing acts contrary to international laws including “severe deprivation of physical liberty”, “forcible transfer of population”, and “intentional acts causing great suffering, or serious injury”.

Wilkie said he sent the letter to force movement on the issue: “I’ve tried repeatedly in the House of Representatives, refugee advocates have tried and tried and tried. Things have deteriorated, really, as far as the government’s asylum seeker policy goes. This is the next step to take.”

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