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By Hoa Trung Dinh

Catholic Theological College, Melbourne Australia

On Friday October 9, 2015, over 400 staff of the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne gathered to show support for asylum seekers and demanded the release of children held in detention by the Australian Government.  It followed a long dispute between the hospital staff and the Immigration Department over the return of children to living conditions that had proved detrimental to their physical and mental health. 

Since 1992, Australia has detained asylum seekers who arrive on its shores without appropriate authorisation.  When the Migration Amendment Act 1992 was introduced with bipartisan support, mandatory detention was perceived as a temporary and exceptional measure to deal with unauthorised boat arrivals from Indochina.  Mandatory detention was subsequently extended to all “unlawful” non-citizens in 1994.  The 273 day detention limit in the Act was also removed, effectively allowing government agents to detain asylum seekers indefinitely.

Since Operation Sovereign Borders was introduced by the Abbott Government in 2013, the detention of “unlawful” non-citizens has been conducted strictly under the shroud of secrecy.  In Mr. Abbott’s own words, “we stop the boats by hook or by crook. I just don’t want to go into the details of how it’s done because like a lot of things that law enforcement agencies have to do, it’s necessary, it’s difficult and at times I suppose it’s dangerous work.”

This secrecy was ensured by the Border Force Act that came into force in July 2015.  The Act forbids health workers and other service providers to “make a record of, or disclose” information about the conditions of asylum seekers detained by the government. 

The penalty for breaking this secrecy is two years imprisonment.

This was the context of the Melbourne doctors’ decision to take a stand against the government’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. 

“We see a whole range of physical, mental, emotional and social disturbances that are really severe and we have no hope of improving these things when we have to discharge our patients back into detention,” one paediatrician told News Corp.

Staff at the Royal Children’s Hospital were also appalled by the placement of immigration guards at the entrances of some patients’ rooms for 24 hours a day.

The doctors’ action received overwhelming support from Victoria’s Health Minister Jill Hennessy as well as leading medical groups, notably the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian College of Physicians.

Vice-president of the Australian Medical Association Dr Stephen Parnis said, “We acknowledge the evidence that children in detention face circumstances which are very harmful to their health, their growth and their development.”  Dr Parnis was concerned that children were presenting with anxiety, severe depression, self-harm, and not growing in a healthy or normal way.  He maintained that if children indeed needed to be detained, then they should be released within weeks at the absolute most. 

The Royal Australian College of Physicians, which has long opposed the detention of children, also said it supported the stance taken by the Royal Children’s Hospital staff.

“Detention centres are no place for children,” said college president Professor Nick Talley. “The health and wellbeing of children should never be open to compromise…No child should be held in detention.”

Responding to the doctors’ plea, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said he would not support a change in government policy.  “I understand the concern of 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,” Mr Dutton said.

This highlights the stark reality that the Australian Government has intentionally detained asylum seekers under such harmful conditions for a clear purpose: to deter the boats.  Among the victims of this inhumane policy are the children who are being treated by the Government merely as a means to its political end.

In their Social Justice Statement 2015-2016 titled “For Those Who’ve Come across the Seas: Justice for Refugees and Asylum Seekers”, the Australian Catholic Bishops point to the experience of Jesus as a refugee as his family fled tyranny and sought refuge in Egypt.  Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan powerfully challenges the Australian Government’s harsh distinction between citizens and “unlawful” non-citizens, and its policy of cruelty toward the latter in order to protect the interests of the former.  The Bishops wrote,

 “When we Australians support policies of cruelty and rejection, we close our ears to Christ’s call and turn him away from our doors.  We know that we are better than this. As Christians, we know that it is within us to hear the call of Jesus. As Australians we have shown ourselves willing to take the path of generosity and leadership. We can do so again.”

As the Australian Government continues to lock up asylum seekers and their children as a means of deterrence, the doctors at the Royal Children’s Hospital have shown this nation an alternative path: one of hospitality and generosity.