I will start this blog by stating that for me the line was crossed on asylum seeker policy when we started keeping children in detention.

It started disappearing from view when we knowingly instituted policies that could harm the psychological well being of adults and children, and disappeared from sight entirely when the Rudd Government decided to send children to be settled in poor countries with limited healthcare.

The treatment of these vulnerable people by a wealthy nation appalls me and sending innocent children into extreme circumstances is abhorrent.

However, I understand that the views of the Australian public are mixed, informed by a mish mash of information on who asylum seekers are, their motivations and means.

Perhaps the best, most illuminating article I have read on this is “The Dream Boat by Luke Mogelson, just published in the New York Times. Luke and his team went undercover to make the journey undertaken by many asylum seekers, and reported the harsh realities of their plight.

I urge all Australians, no matter what their position on asylum seeker policy, to read it and contemplate what would drive people to such extremes.

The editor of the piece stated that this was the best article that he had ever published. Ever. What a twisted irony that the worst of situations produces such fearless and dedicated journalism. I digress.

Last week’s decision to restrict a mother’s access to her sick child represented a new low in asylum seeker policy and a concerning precedent.  Foolishly, I had thought we had reached rock bottom in our treatment of these vulnerable children, alas I was mistaken.

In response to a mother and father being restricted from visiting their new born in special care, our Prime Minister said: “I don’t, as it were, apologise for what happens when people come to Australia illegally by boat.”

As a mother of a child who required special care for a number of days after her birth, I cannot fathom how any parent, person or politician can believe that this was in the best interests of the child.

While I understand the limited capacity of our hospitals to provide beds for parents, I am also aware that being with my child for all but those hours when I slept allowed me to contribute to her care.

Unrestricted access allowed me to bond, provide comfort, provide breast milk and when possible teach my baby to breastfeed – all of which improved her health and wellbeing.

The Mater provides such access and clarified their position in a statement to the ABC’s AM program: “Once a mum is clinically well enough to go home, she is discharged from hospital, but is encouraged to be involved in her baby’s care wherever possible to help establish and strengthen her bond with her baby. Mater places no restrictions on women and they can visit their baby anytime where possible.”

The situation for the baby at the Mater Hospital last week raised both moral and legal questions.

Marita Hefler of the University of Sydney wrote this letter to Scott Morrison based on the information available at the time:

Dear Mr Morrison,

I write concerning the matter of a child born to a mother who is currently seeking asylum, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on 14 November 2013. According to the report “She was separated from her baby on Sunday, four days after a caesarean delivery, and has since been allowed to visit him only between 10am and 4pm.” According to the report, the baby’s father has not been allowed to visit him at all, and presumably neither have his two siblings aged four and seven.   (http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/asylum-seeker-separated-from-her-sick-newborn-in-brisbane-20131113-2xh0f.html)

Can you confirm or deny this report? In the absence of a detailed rebuttal of the facts as outlined in the report, I will assume it is accurate. On this basis, I make the following comments:

Firstly, I wish to express in the strongest possible terms my personal condemnation of this situation. This action is not being taken by your government in my name. As a parent, I am absolutely sickened to know that this can happen in my country. At a most basic human level, this action is an offence to decency and compassion. Separating a newborn child from its family causes unnecessary trauma, impedes bonding, and interferes with the ability of the mother to breastfeed. The latter is particularly important in the case of a child with respiratory problems and who faces being relocated to live in sub-optimal conditions in a country (Nauru) with an infant mortality rate seven times higher than Australia’s.

Rest assured this will not be forgotten, and you, personally, will be judged in the harshest possible terms by history. Should the unimaginable occur, and this child dies without meeting its father or siblings, it will be on your conscience forever.

On a purely legal basis, I am concerned that this action violates the UN convention on the rights of the child. In particular, I draw your attention to the following articles:

Article 3.1: In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.

Article 7.1: The child shall be registered after the birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.

Article 9.1: States Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures, that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child. Such determination may be necessary in a particular case such as one involving abuse or neglect of the child by the parents, or one where the parents are living separately and a decision must be made as to the child’s place of residence.

Please explain how the decision to separate the child from its family in this case is in the best interests of the child.

Finally, as a constituent I object to the lack of information being provided by your government in relation to management of people seeking asylum as is their right under international law, and your consistent refusal to answer legitimate questions from the media on behalf of the Australian people. Although you may wish otherwise, this country is still a democracy. You are answerable to the Australian people. We decide.

Although my expectations are low, I look forward to your detailed response.

Yours sincerely

Marita Hefler

 

I am unaware of any response received.

Happily, the child in question has now been discharged and returned to the care of his family, but the precedent should send a chill down the spine of health care professionals in Australia.

Successive governments have continued to ignore the health risks to asylum  seekers and their children  by instituting indefinite detention and deciding to relocate them to countries with limited infrastructure and struggling health care services.

Decision makers seem determined to ignore the views of health professionals; even the AMA’s position statement including their call for independent monitoring and reporting on asylum seeker health, seems to have gone unheeded.

The asylum seeker debate is complex, as is providing good public health care. What is not complex is continuing to discuss the health risks and issues raised by asylum seeker policy – even if it is something as simple as a newborns need for access to their mother. Health professionals must continue to raise the health implications of current policy.

I will finish with this harrowing quote form an article by Julie-Ann Davies, “Abbott’s new world order” published in the SMH:

”I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, worried that one day we may have to face a royal commission and have to answer for the conditions under which these people were treated and which we didn’t have the guts to challenge the government on.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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