THE first time most Australians became aware of the Border Force Act, which passed into law on July 1, was the attempt by Border Force officers to stop people on the streets of Melbourne to inspect their “papers”. Public outrage, thankfully, put a stop to these bizarre spot checks.Other functions of the Border Force Act are less public and one key purpose is to enforce the act’s secrecy provisions.
It is now a crime for a health worker, such as myself, to report suspected abuse against children in immigration detention. The same applies to other entrusted employees, such as education workers.
The government denies that it is the intention of the legislation to silence health workers. While it is true that there are exemptions in the legislation for threats to life or health in the act, the burden of proof would be on the health workers or the teacher to prove those circumstances and avoid prosecution.
The government does not have a good track record in this area. Last year workers from Save The Children were falsely accused of instructing asylum seekers to make up stories of abuse and expelled from Nauru. The workers were later cleared of any wrongdoing but in the meantime they have had their reputations besmirched and have still not been allowed to return. That was before the Border Force Act.
Immigration detention staff have been vocal. Earlier this year 23 medical staff, teachers and social workers from immigration detention centres called for the removal of all asylum seekers from Nauru to Australia and for a royal commission into sexual abuse and the government’s running of the centres. Under increasing scrutiny, the government appears determined to keep what happens in offshore detention centres hidden.
Many professional organisations have come out against the secrecy provisions of the act. The president of the Australian Medical Association, Brian Owler, has suggested the laws were designed to intimidate people against speaking out.
According to Lee Thomas, the secretary of the Nurse and Midwives Federation, the act directly contradicts the duty of care of nurses and midwives for their patients by preventing them from exposing “the conditions, health, welfare or human rights abuses occurring in detention facilities”.
The secrecy provisions of the act also apply to guards, who have also begun to speak out. The very existence of secrecy provisions is unwarranted, and treats the running of detention centres as a matter of national security.
The real threat to national security here is not asylum seekers but the culture of institutional self-protection and secrecy perpetrated.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has revealed the extent to which abusing organisations will cover up and perpetuate their crimes. Being offshore and shrouded by a media blackout the detention centres already operate under the conditions of secrecy that make abuse more likely to continue.
On the day the act came into effect more than 40 current and former workers from Nauru and Manus Island challenged former prime minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to prosecute them for speaking out.
Many of these employees have made submissions to the Senate inquiry into sexual abuse on Nauru, in which they alleged the government knew of allegations of assault and sexual abuse of asylum seekers months before it acted.
They have also reported on the appalling living conditions in the detention facility, with its inadequate supplies, mould and rodents.
The staff who have worked in these places are in no doubt that the whole system of detention is causing ill health and re-traumatising people who have already experienced trauma.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists recommends that the government immediately remove all asylum seeker children and families from detention. Furthermore, the college recommends that asylum seeker applications be processed while people are in the community and preferably in metropolitan areas and not desert locations or overseas.
Former health workers in detention centres are determined to speak out against abuse and conditions on Nauru. Two of the most vocal, Professor David Isaacs and nurse Alanna Maycock, will be speaking at a public meeting in Newcastle on Thursday night, along with Mohammad Ali Baqiri, Charles Douglas and Kellie Tranter.
According to Gillian Triggs, the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, it is a worrying trend for the government to try to silence medical officers.
Erin Killion is a Newcastle nurse and member of No Jail for Our Duty, which will hold a public meeting on the Border Force Act on September 17, 7pm, at Newcastle City Hall. Speakers are David Isaacs, Alanna Maycock, Mohammad Ali Baqiri, Charles Douglas and Kellie Tranter.