An Australian nurse and dozens of others are challenging the government over conditions at its detention centres for migrants and refugees.
Alanna Maycock had to think long and hard before she decided to defy the government and speak out over what she had seen in Australia’s offshore detention centres for migrants.
She said she was afraid of what would happen to her young sons if the government decided to use a new law to impose a veil of secrecy over the camps, with penalties of up to two years in jail for anyone revealing unauthorized information.
Maycock, a nurse who coordinates a clinic for refugee children at Westmead Children’s Hospital in Sydney, was shocked by conditions at a camp on the Pacific island nation of Nauru in December.
“We saw a girl who had put fence ties around her neck to try and hang herself,” she told dpa.
“I saw a man beaten in the medical centre, and workers and guards just stood by and watched. I was the only one who tried to help. People there are called by numbers, not their name. The supervisors said there were just too many Mohammads to sort out.
“People held at these camps are dehumanized, which makes it easier for the staff to treat them inhumanely.”
Maycock says she is risking jail for speaking about conditions at the detention centre.
Under the new Border Force Act of the conservative government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, it is an offence for an “entrusted person” – which includes doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers at a detention centre – to disclose “protected information” unless approval has been given by the government.
“When I heard this law threatened us with jail if we spoke out, I cancelled all my talks and presentations. I was terrified I would be locked up if I told anyone what I had seen on Nauru, which of course is exactly what the government wanted.”
Maycock joined 40 doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers who have worked in the camps and signed an open letter to the government declaring they would not be silenced by the new law.
“I thought there would be safety in numbers; the government couldn’t send all of us to jail,” she said.
The signatories included many prominent medical professionals who dared the government to jail them.
“We have advocated, and will continue to advocate, for the health of those for whom we have a duty of care, despite the threats of imprisonment, because standing by and watching sub-standard and harmful care, child abuse and gross violations of human rights is not ethically justifiable,” they said in the letter that appeared in newspapers across the country.
“We are aware that in publishing this letter we may be prosecuted under the Australian Border Force Act and we challenge the Department to prosecute so that these issues may be discussed in open court and in full view of the Australian public.”
Maycock has not heard from the government since the letter appeared last month. It generated a lot of support from prominent legal and medical organizations.
“I decided I had to speak out as I feel I am the only voice for the children that I saw in the Nauru detention camp. If I stay silent then it takes away the voice of the girl that I met.”
Maycock’s colleague David Isaacs, clinical professor of paediatrics and child health at Westmead Hospital, visited Nauru detention centre with her. He spoke on Australian broadcaster ABC challenging the government to come and arrest him for speaking out.
“After five days at Nauru I returned home and had nightmares of what I had seen,” he said. “I didn’t expect to be traumatized by the trauma of people I met. We are treating them with incredible cruelty. Our government is abusing children in our name.”
The government said the new law, which was supported by the opposition Labor Party, is not aimed at stopping medical and other professional visitors from talking about what they see inside – as long as they go through official channels.
“It will not restrict anyone’s ability to raise genuine concerns about conditions in detention should they wish to do so through appropriate channels,” Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said after the letter appeared.
“The public can be assured that (the law) will not prevent people from speaking out about conditions in immigration detention facilities,” Dutton said.
But human rights lawyer Greg Barnes said the effect of the law is to deter health professionals from speaking out publicly, and is designed to “throw a veil of secrecy over what is happening in detention centres.”
And those who do speak out may not be allowed back in: Maycock said it has been made clear to her that she is barred from ever being allowed into a detention centre again.