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Doctors and teachers gagged under new immigration laws

Thursday, 04 June 2015

Doctors and teachers working in immigration detention facilities could face up to two years in prison if they speak out against conditions in the centres or provide information to journalists, under sweeping new laws to gag whistleblowers.

The Border Force Act, which was passed quietly on May 14 by both major parties, clamps down on "entrusted people" in detention centres recording or disclosing information about conditions in centres such as those on Nauru and Manus Island.

Under the heading of  "secrecy and disclosure provisions", the act says releasing information is only permitted by the secretary of the department responsible for detention centres.

"Under the proposed measures, the unauthorised disclosures of information, including personal information will be punishable by imprisonment for two years," it says. The new law will be enforced in July in conjunction with the official merger of the Immigration and Customs departments.

Australian Medical Association president Brian Owler, said this was the first time doctors had been threatened with jail time for revealing inadequate conditions for their patients in immigration centres.

"Clearly if doctors are moved to speak out about issues then they should be able to do so," he said. "That's one of the responsibilities that most doctors feel they have.

"This puts most doctors in these circumstances in a very difficult situation if they have to face two years' imprisonment for speaking out, or be quiet and let people suffer. That's not appropriate."

"People can sometimes have their contracts terminated, but I don't recall anyone ever being threatened with imprisonment for speaking out," Dr Owler said.

On Sunday, the AMA passed an "urgency motion" at its national conference, requesting that the federal government review the Border Force Act as a matter of urgency. It also called for the government to amend the act to exempt medical practitioners who disclose, in the public interest, failures in healthcare delivery in immigration detention centres, from prosecution.

The new law means doctors like Dr David Isaacs, who worked on Nauru for the International Health and Medical Service, could face jail time.

Dr Isaacs told Fairfax Media in February how shocked he was about the conditions on Nauru, saying there were not enough sanitary pads available to women, and children and women were forced to shower behind a flimsy curtain that often flew open in front of male guards.

Lawyer George Newhouse said it was unprecedented for the government to target contractors for raising their concerns publicly.

"It is an extremely draconian law, giving a department like Immigration ASIO-like secrecy powers," he said.

"There is no justification for this iron curtain which has been placed around immigration detention other than that the Commonwealth doesn't want Australians and the rest of the world to know about the abominations that are taking place under their watch."

"This is all about the minister wanting to cover up the government's mistakes, which go as far as murder and sexual abuse, including child sexual abuse, [under its watch]."

The new law can be overridden by the Public Interest Disclosure Act, which allows officials and contractors to report maladministration. But doctors are concerned that this exemption may not include disclosing inadequate health care of their patients.

This is not the first time people working in immigration facilities have been targeted for raising concerns about the conditions. In October last year, then  immigration minister Scott Morrison used an anti-whistleblowing law against 10 Save the Children staff on Nauru.

The staff were referred to the Australian Federal Police under section 70 of the Crimes Act after they were accused of communicating privileged information to non-Commonwealth workers. All accusations were later dropped.

Doctors for Refugees co-founder Dr Richard Kidd said the new law was taking away all transparency and accountability.

"It is absolutely clear that doctors and nurses are expected as part of their registration to put the best interests of their patients first and that includes advocating for [people] being denied appropriate health services or being abuse in some way," he said.

In a media release last month, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the new law would "further strengthen the government's ability to protect Australia's border."

A spokeswoman for Mr Dutton said

 there were "appropriate mechanisms for reporting misconduct or maladministration in place".

 The Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 provided protection for officials, including contractors who wanted to report maladministration, the spokeswoman said.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

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