Withholding medicines an abuse of human rights: AMSA, NAPSA


Medical and pharmacy students call on Department of Home Affairs to commit to timely and consistent provision of medicines following allegations from immigration centre detainees

The Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA) has called on the Department of Home Affairs to commit to timely and consistent provision of quality medical care and medicines to the people detained in Christmas Island’s immigration facilities, following recent news of unrest.

This month, protests were reported on the island with detainees alleging that medication was being withheld from them, as well as access to the internet.

“Healthcare is a human right, not a political tool,” Sophie Keen, President of the AMSA, said in a statement released today (19/1).

“The Australian Government’s persistent refusal to afford refugees, asylum seekers and detainees basic standards of living and health care is grossly negligent and a national embarrassment.”

Following reports of a riot, one detainee alleged in a Facebook Live Video on 8 January that “Most of us here have mental problems, they have mental problems here in detention centre. For a couple of days they don’t even want to give them medication.”

Furthermore in a post a few days later, the detainee alleged the centre was “on fire again because the authorities don’t want to give those who are sick, those who have mental problems, those who have heart failure, they don’t want to give them their medication for days”.

“One of the most disturbing reports to have emerged is the Government’s alleged practice of withholding medications prescribed to treat mental illness,” said Gabrielle Cullen, a representative of Crossing Borders, AMSA’s refugee and asylum seeker advocacy division.

She noted that research into the impact of immigration detention on mental health reveals adults, adolescents and children held in detention experience high levels of severe anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder during and following detention.

“Isolation and limited time outside have already been linked to suicides in the past, both on Christmas Island prior to its closure in 2018, and in other detention centres. Indefinite and arbitrary detention takes a toll on people’s mental health. Withholding medical care and medicines on top of this is unconscionable,” Ms Cullen said.

The National Australian Pharmacy Students’ Association (NAPSA) agreed with AMSA’s critique.

“Reports of withheld medical care and medication from those detained on Christmas Island are indeed disturbing,” Ethan Kreutzer, NAPSA National President, told AJP.

“I agree with the assessment made by AMSA in that this is an abuse of human rights, and that the Australian government should seek to immediately improve the living conditions in offshore detention centres and the manner in which all healthcare is delivered.

“Pharmacy students are acutely aware of the importance of good mental health, having recently demonstrated in the 2020 National Pharmacy Students’ Survey that they believe mental health first aid should be a requirement for registration,” said Mr Kreutzer.

Prolonged and untreated mental health conditions often have long-lasting and far-reaching effects on individuals, further highlighting the need for swift action in the cases of those detained offshore.

“NAPSA supports the call made by AMSA for the Federal Government to commit to improving the conditions on Christmas Island, allowing individuals there to access healthcare systems and to expedite a solution to end their offshore detention, so they are not left in indefinite limbo.”

George Newhouse, the principal solicitor of the National Justice Project, told Guardian reporter Paul Karp that the “harsh and solitary conditions” were having an effect on the mental health and welfare of detainees.

The Australian Border Force (ABF) confirmed in a statement on 6 January that there was a “disturbance” in the Christmas Island Detention Centre, with an “operation is underway to restore order”. However there was no further statement provided on the most recent incident.

In August the Federal Government announced it was reopening the Christmas Island detention centre, citing the impact of COVID-19 on the ABF’s ability to remove unlawful non-citizens from Australia.

According to the ABF, detainees held at the centre have no entitlement to remain in Australia because of their risk to the Australian community, following conviction for crimes such as assault, sexual offences, drugs and other violent offences.

The ABF has been contacted for comment.

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