Australia lifts gag order on doctors treating refugees

Australia has rejected a claim by Amnesty International that conditions at Nauru refugee camp amount to torture [Reuters]

Doctors are no longer bound by the secrecy provision criminalising speaking out about conditions at refugee prisons.


The Australian government has quietly lifted the threat of jailing doctors who speak out against child abuse and neglect of asylum seekers in detention, doctors' lawyers revealed on Thursday. Doctors 4 Refugees, a volunteer organisation, launched a High Court challenge in July to the constitutional validity of secrecy provisions within the Border Force Act.


Doctors argue that the provisions gagged them from speaking publicly about conditions in Australian-run immigration camps on remote islands.


The doctors' legal team discovered in court documents this week that the government had exempted health professionals from the secrecy provisions shortly before lodging its legal defence, lawyer Meghan Fitzgerald said.


A government website shows that the change took effect on October 1, exempting a wide range of health professionals, including doctors, midwives, podiatrists and nutritionists.


"The government has been forced into a back down as a result of the advocacy of health professionals who owe a duty of care to ... their patients and whose ethical duties are paramount," Doctors 4 Refugees said in a statement.


READ MORE: Australia accused of denying detainees medical care



Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.


The Border Force Act, which became law last year, makes it a criminal offence punishable by two years in prison for a broadly defined "entrusted person" within the immigration regime to disclose "protected information".


Fitzgerald said that the doctors were continuing their case, adding teachers and social workers who work with asylum seekers should also not be gagged by the threat of prison.


Under Australia's tough immigration policy, asylum seekers intercepted trying to reach the country by boat are sent for processing to a camp in Nauru or to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and are not eligible for resettlement in Australia.


Allegations of rights abuses


Several rights groups have released reports in recent weeks on rights abuses in one of Australia's offshore prisons for migrants and refugees on the island of Nauru.


Australia on Tuesday rejected a claim by Amnesty International that conditions on Nauru, where about 400 Australian-bound asylum seekers are held "amount to torture" .


Amesty's report came on the heels of an October 7 United Nations report accusing the governments of Australia and Nauru of failing to protect children held in detention.

Additionally, a UN human rights investigator said this w eek that Australia's government has become increasingly secretive through a range of new laws, including the gag on officials speaking out about conditions at Australia-run immigration camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.


Michel Forst, the UN's Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, recommended that Australia review its secrecy laws, including the "stifling" Border Force Act, to remove provisions that contravene human rights principles.


Forst said he had been assured by government officials during his two-week visit to Australia that no one had yet been charged under the Border Protection Act.

"This may well be the case, but the Act's existence and government actions aimed at censoring and intimidating advocates has had a chilling effect on the disclosure of information about violations in off-shore processing," Forst wrote in his End of Mission Statement.

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It's a massive win. But it's also a cowardly legal manoeuvre, comments the activist group GetUp.


"The government left the gag rule in place for all other potential whistleblowers, like teachers and social workers, just because they weren't part of the case."

By removing the Border Force Act gag rule from just a fraction of the carers who could speak out, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton hopes he can still hide incidents of abuse and mistreatment from public view. That's at the core of the government's strategy to keep people in detention and get away with abuse.

"But some brave people are still risking two years in jail just for speaking up – and every time they do, we'll be there to support them."

Just last week, through ABC's Four Corners and an Amnesty International report, teachers and service workers spoke out about incidents and conditions of abuse on Nauru.

It's appalling that they are still at risk of prosecution. But the backdown in the case of medical staff means the government fears gagging whistleblowers is not just immoral and undemocratic – it could be unconstitutional.


More on this:


Asylum gag lifted for doctors, nurses

'A huge win for doctors': Turnbull government backs down on gag laws for doctors on Nauru and Manus

Doctors freed to speak about Australia's detention regime after U-turn

Australia Lifts Jail Threat for Doctors Treating Refugees

The Forgotten Children, ABC Four Corners

Island of Despair, Amnesty International