March 5, 2024

The bioethics of Australia’s immigration detention policies

Australia’s asylum seeker policies have been subject to intense international scrutiny – even in the world of bioethics.

Australia’s asylum seeker policies have been subject to intense international scrutiny, even in the world of bioethics. A paper published this week in the Journal of Medical Ethics questions whether Australia’s mandatory detention and operational security laws prevent medical professionals from fulfilling their ethical duties.

Specifically, the authors of the paper – Dr John Paul Sanggaran, of the University of New South Wales and Dr Deborah Zion, of Victoria University – argue that the Australian Boarder Force Act 2015 prevents healthcare professionals who are working in detention centres from reporting human rights abuses such as the torture of detainees. Sanggaran and Zion write,

There is a documented history of issues having been raised by medical practitioners working within the system for years without progress let alone resolution…Significantly, the lack of transparency and informally sanctioned breaches of ethical practice are now accompanied by new laws that explicitly prohibit medical and healthcare practitioners from reporting, other than through demonstrably failed internal channels.

Healthcare workers, Sanggaran and Zion argue, are prevented from fulfilling basic ethical obligations to people in detention:

The role of doctors and other healthcare providers in detention is vital to maintaining any semblance of human rights, in particular the right to health, as other systems that uphold this right are absent… [Yet] Bearing witness by healthcare professionals presents a ‘dual loyalty’ conflict, whereby such persons are asked to subordinate the patient’s interests to the state or to their employer, thereby violating his or her human rights. The healthcare provider therefore finds him or herself in potential breach of a contractual obligation to remain silent.

The suggestion among asylum seeker advocates like the authors of this paper is that the Australian government should ratify the UN’s Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). Part of this would involve the establishment of a National Preventative Mechanism (NPM) – a system of regular visits and reporting by independent bodies. NPM assessments, according to Sanggaran and Zion, “inform legislation and intervention, as well as act as deterrents in their own right. The transparency this provides should in and of itself act as a deterrent to human rights abuses.” 

The bioethics of Australia’s immigration detention policies
Xavier Symons
Creative commons
clinical ethics