Immigration department breaches the privacy rights of asylum seekers

Picture of facilities at Nauru Detention Centre, available from: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/forgotten-children-national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014/12-children
Picture of facilities at Nauru Detention Centre, available from: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/forgotten-children-national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014/12-children

An article in The Guardian today claims that the Department of Immigration has sought access to confidential medical records of asylum seekers for ‘political purposes.’

The article reports on a briefing document written by a senior clinician at International Health and Medical Services (which delivers health services at mainland and offshore detention centres), which appears to show that the IHMS has disclosed asylum seekers’ health records to the immigration department for reasons not related to the health and welfare of individuals in detention.

As the article points out, this practice potentially breaches the Commonwealth Privacy Act, which prohibits the disclosure of health information to third parties (without the consent of the individual concerned), unless the disclosure is directly related to treatment of the individual (or in certain permitted circumstances, such as preventing a threat to public health or safety).

Further, the disclosure breaches clinicians’ duty of confidence towards their patients, and may also violate professional guidelines and codes of practice, such as the Medical Board of Australia’s Good Medical Practice code of conduct for doctors. Under the code, good medical practice includes protecting patients’ privacy and confidentiality, and ‘appropriately sharing information about patients for their health care.’

Disclosure of asylum seekers’ health records may seem like a relatively minor issue considering the many documented abuses perpetrated against individuals in detention.   But, privacy is an important underpinning to personal autonomy, and the right to control information about one’s self is key to self-determination. The unauthorised disclosure of asylum seekers’ medical records represents a significant infringement of asylum seekers’ rights, and forms part of a broader trend towards dehumanising people in detention centres.

In part, the Privacy Act was enacted to give effect to Australia’s obligations under article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that ‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour or reputation’ [sic]. The unauthorised disclosure of asylum seeker’s health records puts Australia at odds with its international human rights commitments, as well as breaching domestic privacy laws.

The disclosure of medical records for ‘political purposes’ (whatever that may mean) illustrates the Catch-22 situation faced by clinicians working in detention centres. Health professionals working in these centres must deal with the tension between their ethical and legal duties to patients, and pressure from government and private employers to act in ways that compromise the health and wellbeing of asylum seekers. This issue also raises serious questions about the immigration department’s approach to privacy and its management of highly personal, and potentially very sensitive, health information.

Muzzling health and welfare professionals in the name of national security: Australia’s Border Force Act 2015

Posted by Roger Magnusson and Cameron Stewart

This is the view from the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa.  Take it in.  It helps to have a sense of perspective.

The view from Table Mountain, Cape Town (1)
The view from Table Mountain, Cape Town (1)

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The view from  Table Mountain, Cape Town (2)
The view from Table Mountain, Cape Town (2)

It’s now more than 21 years since apartheid ended.  These days, few people would criticise anyone for having broken those racially motivated laws that were part of South Africa’s statute book during the period of white minority rule.  But why do people feel that way?

For some, it may be the patent absurdity of discriminating against entire classes of people based on the colour of their skin, or whether or not they passed the “pencil test” .

For others, it may be the fact that laws constructing systematic racial discrimination were inconsistent with a higher moral law, or with international human rights instruments that give protection from discrimination on grounds such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, and national or social origin .

With apartheid in mind, let’s return to Australia.  The Box below describes some key features of the Australian Border Force Act 2015 (Cth).  The application of this Act to health and welfare professionals caring for children in immigration detention has attracted a great deal of attention.

Rightly so.

As law professors, health law specialists, and parents, we know we are not alone in believing that whatever sense of obligation we feel to obey the law is eclipsed by the moral imperative to protect children from harm.  Some of the worst abuses of children, causing lifelong harm and distress, are the result of institutional indifference to instances of abuse.  If you think you care about children, or if you have any children of your own, then consider how the Australian Border Force Act will impact on them.

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The Act creates the Australian Border Force, integrating immigration and customs functions into a single entity within the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Amongst other things, the Act appears designed to improve the control of information, to prevent leaks, and to reduce unwelcome media scrutiny of the operation of immigration detention facilities arising from public disclosures by Immigration and Border Protection workers.

The Act creates an offence, carrying a penalty of imprisonment for 2 years, if an “entrusted person” makes a record of, or discloses “protected information” (s. 42).

An “Immigration and Border Protection Worker” includes government employees, as well as consultants – doctors, nurses, social workers – engaged by the Department to work inside immigration detention centres.  “Protected information” means “means information that was obtained by a person in the person’s capacity as an entrusted person”.

The Act authorizes the Secretary of the Department to authorize an entrusted person (let’s say a doctor) to disclose protected information (let’s say allegations of sexual assault against a child in immigration detention) to the Department, to police, or to any other authorized body or person.  However, the Secretary may attach written conditions to the permission to make such disclosures (s. 44).

The Act does authorize disclosure of protected information to “prevent or lessen a serious threat to the life or health of an individual” (s. 48).  However, this would not extend to disclosures to the media relating to the systemic conditions in which children are living in detention, or the impact of incarceration on their mental and physical health and wellbeing.

In summary, the Act appears designed to muzzle health and welfare professionals from reporting any information they obtain in the course of their duties (extending, for example, to allegations of sexual assault against children in immigration detention), except with the permission of a bureaucrat.

The culture operating within the Department of Immigration and Border Protection is likely to mean that Secretarial permission will rarely, if ever, granted.

The likely result of the Act is that it will become more difficult for the government’s accountability for the health, welfare and protection of children in immigration detention to be tested in the political arena.

Whatever you think about the merits of mandatory detention of the children of asylum seekers, the constraints on health and welfare professionals appear to strike at the heart of freedom of speech.  The Act might well infringe the implied constitutional freedom of political communication that all Australians enjoy.  No doubt this will be tested soon.

The Australian Border Force Act does not mention the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 , but if – as the government asserts – the former Act is subject to the latter , persons speaking out would need to navigate a thicket of statutory conditions in order to escape prosecution.  The intent of the Australian Border Force Act is to change the culture within which services are delivered to persons in immigration detention: that much seems clear.

It is not surprising that health and welfare professionals have pointed to the contrast between the Australian Border Force Act and the protections that apply to Australian children outside immigration detention.

In NSW, the Children and Young Persons Care and Protection Act 1998 imposes mandatory reporting on health and welfare professionals when they have reasonable grounds to suspect a child is being abused or is at risk of significant harm .  On the other hand, unless the Secretary gives their permission, doctors and welfare workers could be committing a criminal offence if they reveal anything at all about the conditions in which children in immigration detention are living.

Writing in the Guardian, over 40 “entrusted persons” have called for civil disobedience:

“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”.

As law professors employed by one of Australia’s oldest law schools, we live and breathe law, and care about the rule of law.  Frankly, however, we don’t care about it enough to stand by while government tries to muzzle dedicated professionals working in difficult conditions to protect the safety and dignity of children.

Parliament makes the rules.  It decides what is lawful and unlawful.  But when the moral compass goes astray and laws are designed to ensure that the public never even gets to hear about the harm that children are suffering in immigration detention, then that is a step too far.

The President of Australia’s Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, points out that Australia is alone in the world in indefinitely locking up the children of asylum seekers. The Commission’s Forgotten Children report found that this practice violates the right to health that children enjoy under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  It also ignores the substantial body of evidence of the harm that immigration detention is causing to children.

“Entrusted persons” face difficult choices in the months ahead.  In deciding how to reconcile their professional ethics, moral intuitions and legal obligations, they can at least stand assured that there can be no moral obligation to stand by and do nothing while children are being harmed.

The Australian Border Force Act 2015 needs a radical overhaul.  Otherwise it belongs in the bin.  Both parties ought to think again.

Take another look at the view from Table Mountain.  In the distance you can see Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment.

IMG_1614 - tweaked and cropped - resized

Upcoming Conferences: Emerging Health Policy Research Conference 2015

The Menzies Centre for Health Policy is hosting its 10th annual Emerging Health Policy Research Conference on Tuesday, 21 July 2015, at the University of Sydney.

The Conference showcases the work of current masters, doctoral and early career research workers, as well as those new to the field of health policy research. This year’s keynote speaker is Professor Billie Giles-Cori, Director of the McCaughey VicHealth Community Wellbeing Unit, Centre for Health Equity, University of Melbourne. The conference includes sessions on healthy environments, research translation, health systems and workforce, policy analysis, and mental health.

The full conference program and registration form are available on the Menzies Centre website.