Words by: Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
On 1 July 2015 the Australian Federal Government implemented the Australian Border Force Act 2015 (Cth), which rendered it illegal for doctors and health professionals to speak out against, or even to report, injustices that they might witness in Australia’s detention centres.
The penalty for disobeying this law is spending two years in prison. The consequence of obeying this law is a permanent guilt-trip on your conscience.
If there is anyone out there reading this who is actually sitting there going “Oh, it’s not too bad,” let me explain to you why it is that bad.
All right, so if this law applied to the wider Australian community, and therefore doctors, health professionals, and teachers were forbidden by law to report child abuse or sexual abuse (or any adjective that precedes the word ‘abuse’), you would be worried.
You would be worried because the danger would be here and immediate and accessible – more tangible, one might say. But this law, passed by the Australian Federal Government, is perhaps less tangible because it affects ‘others’: people in detention centres.
The idea is this: speaking out against crime in itself is a crime. How can this not be anything else but stupendously wrong?
Understandably, it has sparked a fair bit of outrage, especially from those affected in the medical field. On the same day the law came into effect, some forty doctors, psychiatrists, teachers, and child protection workers who have worked in the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres wrote an open letter of protest, which included this point that I mentioned before:
“If we witness child abuse in Australia we are legally obliged to report it to child protection authorities. If we witness child abuse in detention centres, we can go to prison for attempting to advocate for them effectively.”
By signing this open letter these brave souls challenged the Government to prosecute them. One of the doctors at the protest in Sydney, general practitioner Michael Burke, expressed his concern about the secrecy surrounding the occurrences in detention facilities.He stated:
“I think the health professions have always worked to advocate and care for people and we have a worrying trend that that role has been diminished.”
Which brings me to my next point: is it not the responsibility of doctors, or of human beings with any shred of decency, to:
- Identify and note when something is wrong; and
- To see what can be done about it?
If we silence the voices of the people who are practically the only ones able to witness and identify problems in these places, then what’s left? Are we to ignore the suffering of the many lives of men, women and children in these detention centres? Are we supposed to forget them? Is that what this is all leading towards? Forgetting the less fortunate?
Professor David Isaacs and Nurse Alanna Maycock wrote an article in February 2015 in which they described the atrocious living conditions at the Nauru detention centre. In this article they spoke of the tight security and the restrictions placed upon the living quarters. For example, Issacs and Maycock witnessed mouldy tents about 30 to 120 metres from the nearest washing and toilet facilities.
They also described how one fifteen-year-old boy, after fifteen months without progress, sewed his lips together and refused to eat. He passed out after three days and the thread was cut. When he came round, he was furious. Isaacs and Maycock wrote:
“His protest was a desperate attempt to have his voice heard by a country that prefers to put asylum seekers out of sight and out of mind.”
They go on to say that most of the people detained in these centres, nearly all of whom live with stress-related health problems, have been there for more than a year. However, most of the staff members are allowed to return home after four to six weeks of work to rest – this is because they may become exhausted and develop mental health problems if they stay any longer.
We hear little enough of their troubles as it is. Why is there such a need to make sure we don’t hear any more of them?
The 1st of July also saw the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service merge with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, giving birth to the Australian Border Force. The Australian Border Force’s function is to maximize border protection and is seen as a culmination of the move towards militarised border security.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave them his blessing on Sky News earlier this month:
“May God bless you, may God bless your work, may God bless the country you are helping to protect and prosper.”
“Protect”, okay, protect whom? Against what?
“Prosper”, what, by ignoring the issues that need attention?
This Act has achieved nothing and is looking to achieve little more than instilling fear in people with honest jobs who might otherwise have made a significant difference, and stifling the voices of people whose right it is to speak.
This begs the question: in whose best interests is the government acting?
Mull it over. The answer’s not too difficult.