In a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics, the ethicists, Dr John-Paul Sanggaran, of the University of New South Wales, and Professor Deborah Zion, of Victoria University, claim that there is “increasing evidence that Australia is engaged in torturing asylum seekers” with refugees imprisoned for more than a year without trial. “There are allegations of situations, circumstances and actions that also constitute cruel and unusual punishment throughout Australian immigration detention,” they wrote. They pointed to allegations by guards at a detention centre on the island of Nauru “of waterboarding, familiar to most as a torture technique that simulates drowning used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in places like Guantanamo bay”.
There are allegations of waterboarding, another method of torture called “zipping” in which people are tied to a bed that is then thrown into the air, sexual assault and exploitation, and child abuse. And the inmates of detention centres created outside of Australia to avoid its laws are held in conditions of secrecy that prevent scrutiny of their treatment while laws prevent doctors speaking out about mistreatment. “‘Zipping’ is described as tying an individual to a metal bed frame with cable ties, the bed is then thrown into the air causing injury to the bound individual when the frame crashes to the ground,” they added.
In another article in the journal, Professor David Isaacs, who provided paediatric services at an immigration detention centre, said the prolonged imprisonment was “arguably to coerce asylum seekers into voluntarily returning to their own or another country and to deter others from seeking asylum”. The consequences of such detention were “severe mental health problems including anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, self-harm and suicidality”.
Professor Kenneth Boyd, of Edinburgh University, who is an associate editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, wrote in a related article that “medical involvement in torture is often discussed in terms of what happens or has happened elsewhere, in some imagined country far away, under a military dictatorship for example, or historically in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia”. He spoke of the moral dilemma for healthcare staff when asked to treat someone who may have been tortured. “On the one hand, any involvement whatever in the practice of torture, countenancing or condoning as well as participating, is forbidden, formally by the World Medical Association 1957 Declaration of Tokyo, but more generally by the professional duty to do no harm,” he said. “On the other hand, the professional duty of care, and more generally human decency and compassion, forbids standing idly by when no other professional with comparable skills is available to relieve the suffering of victims of torture. But then again, they may also be all too aware that in exercising their duty of care they may simply be ‘patching up’ the victims in order for them to be tortured again. Internationally, however, the medical community cannot now easily go back on its commitment to not countenancing, condoning or participating in ‘the practice of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading procedures’.”