Staff at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital held a protest over the weekend, refusing to discharge children back into immigration detention centres over health concerns. Reports say that 1000 doctors and nurses held the protest, despite recent laws that threaten health workers who complain about the conditions of these centres with up to two years in jail.
At the protest on Saturday, staff called on the government to stop holding children in these detention centres, citing concerns about welfare and calling the practice harmful. Young patients displayed evidence of psychological trauma, with doctors describing children who display behavioural problems due to their detainment.
“We see a whole range of physical, mental, emotional and social disturbances that are really severe,” one doctor at the protest told the newspaper.
“We have no hope of improving these things when we have to discharge our patients back into detention.”
The Australian Medical Association said it backs the “principled and ethical” stance of the Melbourne RCH staff, calling on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull “to intervene with a compassionate and humane solution.”
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the government would not be changing the policy, despite medical professionals’ concerns. “I understand the concern of the doctors, but the Defence and Border Force staff on our vessels who were pulling dead kids out of the water don’t want the boats to restart.” Dutton said his support was for the Defence and Border Force staff and he would not support a policy change.
A recent report from the Australian Border Force suggests there are more than 100 children in detention centres in Australia. The report says that The Nauru Regional Processing Centre, located on the island country in the Central Pacific, is currently detaining 93 children.
Last week saw a legal challenge to the legality of the Australian-funded offshore detention centres at Nauru and Manus Island.
The test case is being run on behalf of a woman from Bangladesh who was brought to Australia from Nauru in August last year for medical treatment. Her daughter is now 10 months old and supporters say the mother is “terrified” of returning to Nauru.
Cases have also been brought for about 200 people who have been detained offshore and are now in Australia temporarily, including men who have been victims of violence on Manus Island, women sexually assaulted on Nauru and more than 50 children.
During the summer, The Australian Border Force Bill came into effect and allows a jail sentence of up to two years for whistleblowers who publicly speak out about detention centres without government permission. More than forty medical professionals, humanitarian workers and teachers opposed the law in an open letter to the government. The law is similar to the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill in 2014, which strengthened the powers of spy agency ASIO while threatening journalists and whistleblowers with long jail sentences.
“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 centers, we can go to prison for attempting to advocate for them effectively,” said Dr John Paul Sanggaran in July.
Dr Kate Thomson-Bowe, who works at the Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital, said that the centres have long term effects on children’s development.
“The emotional development of children is affected, their speech and learning can be affected and the anxiety and mental health consequences can start from very early childhood and we see that has an impact on their development long term.
Children need a lot of security and opportunity to play in order to develop normally.
The environment of a detention centre is so far from what develops normal opportunity, the families don’t have the opportunity to play together, the children are subject to rules and regulations that no typical child is subjected to.”
[Images: Australian Medical Association]