David Isaacs. Secrets and lies and bad morality: Australia’s policy on people seeking asylum

The latest episode in the long, sorry saga of how badly we can treat people seeking asylum was played out in the High Court in February 2016. Long because the story started in 1992 when the Paul Keating Labor government introduced mandatory detention ‘as a temporary measure’ in reaction to a handful of people arriving in leaky boats from Cambodia. And I use the term ‘people seeking asylum’ advisedly, because the term ‘asylum seekers’ dehumanises the people and has been shown to cause Australians to switch off. The High Court found it is legal for the Government to send babies born in Australia and children and adults transferred to Australia for mental health and other problems back to Nauru. This decision was predictable because the Government passed retrospective legislation making it legal. As the human rights lawyer Daniel Webb put it so eloquently, the law is complex but the morality is simple. Bad Governments pass bad laws to allow them to do things that are morally wrong. I am a doctor not a lawyer, so I am not qualified to say at what point the High Court has a duty to make sure our Government does not exact really heinous legislation, but this is pretty bad. Excising Christmas Island from the mainland and sending people into detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island is our Guantanamo. These are ‘black sites’ where people can be severely mistreated under a veil of secrecy: out of sight and out of mind.

To argue that people are now free to come and go from the detention centre on Nauru is disingenuous. They are not safe if they leave the detention centre and they are not safe in the detention centre. Their visas to stay on Nauru are restricted to 5 years, so their future is as uncertain as ever. Nauru is their prison. Mr Dutton has stated that the hospital on Nauru is comparable to Australian hospitals. I did a clinic at the Republic of Nauru (RON) Hospital in December 2015 and it is far, far worse than any Australian hospital I ever visited. Furthermore, the staffing is as important as the facilities and the RON Hospital struggles for qualified staff. Of course, Mr Dutton will argue things have changed in the last year. Verifying the truth is impossible when the only journalist allowed in for years was a single Murdoch Press Government sympathiser and doctors who speak out risk two years in prison.

Ethics can be defined as ‘how we ought to behave’ and medical ethics as how health professionals ought to behave. I recently published a paper (available on request) in the Journal of Medical Ethics (http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2015/12/20/medethics-2015-103066.abstract) in which I argue that prolonged immigration detention fulfils all the criteria for torture. I then argue that doctors and other health care professionals are conflicted: they have a duty to their patients to help them but they also have a duty not to condone torture. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) argues to this day that water-boarding prisoners in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib was not torture because the technique was devised by psychologists and supervised by doctors. The doctors would presumably argue that the water-boarding was going to happen anyway and they were ensuring the prisoners did not drown. Highly respected colleagues and lawyers have said to me “Nauru is not as bad as Guantanamo”. Is it not? Are we to have degrees of torture? There have been unconfirmed (probably unconfirmable) reports by a guard of water-boarding and ‘zipping’ being inflicted on people in immigration detention in Nauru (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-08-14/guard-tells-parliamentary-inquiry-asylum-seekers-tortured-nauru/6699162). Why would the guard lie? Mr Dutton denied it, but he would wouldn’t he.

The harms we are inflicting on adults to punish them for having the temerity to flee persecution in their homelands are immoral. We treat innocent adults worse than we do convicted criminals. But the public are more likely to sympathise with the argument that children are innocent victims. Gillian Triggs realised this, which is why her Forgotten Children enquiry is so powerful. Alison Light, in her wonderful book “Common people”, describes how the 19th century English workhouses were intended to punish men who did not want to work, but the biggest victims were women and children. I was struck by the parallels with immigration detention centres. I am proud that increasing numbers of paediatricians and paediatric nurses have decided to speak out against what is being done to children by our Government in our name. Alanna Maycock, Hasantha Gunasekera, Karen Zwi and Josh Francis have all risked imprisonment for telling the truth.

What should happen? The Government mantra, ‘We’ve stopped the boats’, means the immigration detention centres are redundant. Keeping people imprisoned can only be to deter other desperate people from seeking asylum. Europe, struggling with a far bigger immigrant problem, has not resorted to such vulgar deterrent policies, although extreme right wing European groups cite Australia as an example to follow. We should allow the derisory number of children to remain in Australia with their parents. We should close the detention centres on Nauru and Manus, which are not only immoral but hugely expensive (it costs over half a million dollars per year for each person kept on Nauru). Mr Turnbull committed his Government to a tough stance on border control. If that stance includes continuing to torture innocent people we should hang our heads in shame.

Professor David Isaacs is Senior Staff Specialist, Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology and Clinical Professor of Paediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Sydney. He works at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

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