Australian medics refuse to be silenced over refugee abuse at detention centers

    A new gag law has turned refugee policy into a free speech issue, mobilizing health professionals to oppose the government’s policy more strongly.
    (Facebook / Doctors Against the Border Force Act)
    (Facebook / Doctors Against the Border Force Act)

    Earlier this year, the Australian parliament passed a law concerning workers at the detention centers. It is now a criminal offense for them to reveal to outsiders what is happening to asylum seekers, with a potential penalty of job loss and two years in prison.

    Why is the government so afraid of workers speaking out? And why, in particular, is the treatment of refugees such a sensitive topic?

    The detention story

    Australia has no land borders with any other country, so asylum seekers outside the humanitarian quota can only arrive by air or sea. Although relatively few undertake the perilous sea voyage, successive governments have raised the alarm about asylum seekers arriving by boat, while maintaining a massive planned immigration program.

    In the early 1990s, the government set up detention facilities for asylum seekers, and for years 90 percent of them were eventually officially classified as refugees. In following years, refugee policies became ever more draconian. These policies have been supported by both major political parties, seemingly trying to outbid each other in being tough on those who are most vulnerable.

    The effects of long-term detention are horrific: After months or years in isolated camps in unhealthy conditions — with uncertain futures, limited opportunities for self-development and incidents of sexual abuse — many detainees suffer physical and mental problems. Traumatized in their home countries, they are additionally traumatized by their life in the camps. Children — some of them born in the camps — are especially badly affected.

    Harsh, punitive treatment of asylum seekers is a scandal. Australian politicians cultivate a fear of “boat people” for electoral purposes. Each major party has tried to outflank its opponent by being tough in the hope of causing splits in the other party, a process called “wedging.” However, the government, whichever party is in power, also needs to reduce public outrage from its policies.

    Outrage management

    When governments break the law, harm people or do something else that might generate concern, they typically use several methods to reduce public outrage. One common method is cover-up: If people don’t know about an abuse, they won’t be worried. Most detention centers were set up in remote parts of Australia. In recent years, they have been set up outside the Australian mainland, in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Most journalists are prevented from gaining access to the camps.

    Another key method to reduce outrage is devaluation of asylum seekers. They have been persistently called “illegals,” even though seeking asylum is legal, and “queue jumpers,” even though there is no formal queue for refugees. Some politicians suggest, without any evidence, that asylum seekers might be terrorists, though actually most are fleeing wars and terrorism.

    The government provides numerous rationalizations for its policy. “Stopping the boats” has been reinterpreted as a matter of national security, to be handled by the Australian Navy, rather than a humanitarian issue. The government has undertaken legal manipulations that are ingenious in getting around refugee commitments. For example, in 2013 parliament excised the Australian mainland from “Australia” for the purposes of the refugee convention, so that arriving at Darwin or Sydney by boat does not count as arriving in Australia and thus triggering treaty commitments. It is now impossible for asylum seekers arriving by boat to be permanently resettled in Australia.

    Then there is intimidation, a technique used for several purposes. The idea of detention and, in some cases, indefinite imprisonment in harsh conditions is to send a message to potential asylum seekers not to come to Australia. Intimidation is also applied to those seeking to expose the government’s actions. This brings us to the 2015 Border Force Act, criminalizing the reporting of conditions in camps.

    The perils of speaking out

    The Border Force Act shows the synergy of the techniques of intimidation and cover-up. By threatening criminal sanctions, the act seeks to hide what is happening in the camps from the general public. The sanctions apparently apply to teachers, healthcare workers, humanitarian volunteers and perhaps even guards.

    Another law passed this year requires that telecommunications and Internet service providers retain metadata on electronic communications for two years. This act, supposedly introduced to enable detection of criminals and terrorists, will almost certainly be used for surveillance of whistleblowers.

    A worker at a detention facility is thus in a precarious position. The telephone numbers and email addresses of anyone contacted might be traced and used to identify a leak. Criminal penalties loom large. In essence, the Australian government has created a system for monitoring and penalizing dissent characteristic of a repressive regime.


    For decades, Australian refugee supporters have opposed the political panic about asylum seekers arriving by boat and have made persistent efforts to advocate on behalf of refugees and provide support for them. Some Australians have made regular visits to detention centers, providing personal support to individuals. Whistleblowers have exposed conditions in the camps and journalists have written powerful stories. Lawyers, many of them pro bono, have supported asylum seekers through the maze of regulations that serve to delay and block official approval of permanent settlement in Australia. Campaigners have written innumerable letters, held meetings, organized rallies and used other forms of protest. Asylum seekers themselves, in the camps, have protested in various ways, including by the drastic step of sewing their lips together to symbolize how their voices are muzzled.

    When refugees are released into the community, many Australian communities have accepted them wholeheartedly, helping them with learning English, learning to drive and getting jobs. The generosity of the Australian people provides a stark contrast with the hard-hearted policies implemented by successive Australian governments. Most politicians seem to believe there are more votes in appearing tough than in being compassionate or in respecting the spirit of treaty obligations.

    The Border Force Act is the latest installment in the government’s attempts to shut down exposure of the consequences of its policies. But it may be a step too far.

    Most of the workers at detention centers, for example cooks and cleaners, do not have any special obligation to report problems. When they leak information about the adverse effects of detention, they are acting on the basis of their general humanity. However, the parliament, in passing the Border Force Act, included teachers and health professionals who feel a professional duty to report on conditions affecting their students and patients.

    Health professionals have been expressing their opposition to the act. The Royal Australasian College of Physicians has called for mandatory detention to be stopped. Groups of health professionals, outraged by the act, have taken various initiatives, including organizing petitions and rallies. A few have spoken out about camp conditions, challenging the law. There are plans to develop a statement challenging the law, as a form of civil disobedience.

    In practice, it is very unlikely that a doctor would be sentenced to prison for reporting on the health of asylum seekers: This would generate too much adverse publicity. Even so, the threat of criminal penalties for doing what many professionals would believe is in the best interests of their patients is a powerful stimulus to express opposition.

    Government apologists have long dismissed refugee advocates as “bleeding hearts” whose concerns should not dictate policy. Doctors and other health professionals are not so easy to dismiss. The Border Force Act has actually weakened the government’s position in two important ways: It has turned refugee policy into a free speech issue, and it has mobilized sections of the powerful medical profession to oppose the government’s policy more strongly. This case shows the value to a social justice campaign of drawing in a wide variety of groups.

    The fact that the government is taking extreme measures to hide the way asylum seekers are treated in detention centers is a good indication that it is afraid of public scrutiny. Making injustice visible is a powerful technique. The Border Force Act is not the end of the story, but rather the beginning of a new stage in the struggle.

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