SYDNEY: The Australian government has watered down controversial laws that critics say stop whistleblowers from speaking out about alleged abuse at offshore asylum-seeker detention camps.
Doctors on Thursday welcomed the move, which comes ahead of a High Court challenge to secrecy provisions introduced last year which made it a jailable offence for immigration department workers to speak out about conditions in the centers.
The department last month quietly changed the definition of immigration workers to exclude medical professionals, but only informed lawyers representing Doctors for Refugees this week, the advocacy group said.
Others such as teachers and social workers could still face jail time if they disclosed information they have obtained while working at detention camps on the Pacific island of Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Asylum-seekers trying to reach Australia by boat are sent to the islands for processing, but are blocked from being resettled in Australia even if found to be refugees.
“We treat (the changes) as a win for commonsense,” Barri Phatarfod from Doctors for Refugees told reporters in Sydney.
“But it needs to be remembered that the amendment to this act does not cover teachers, social workers and the various non-medical people that Doctors for Refugees gets our information from.
“Nor does it change the abuse and neglect that we witness in so many of the patients that we hear about in the detention centers.”
Amnesty International on Monday released a report alleging widespread abuse and an “epidemic of self-harm” at the Nauru center.
Conditions in the camps have been widely criticized by refugee advocates and medical professionals.
The immigration department said Thursday the secrecy provisions did not stop workers from raising concerns “through appropriate channels” and “has never been an instrument to ‘gag’ lawful disclosures in the public interest”.
“The department’s amendment to the determination makes clear that health practitioners performing services for the department are not subject to the act — that includes the act’s secrecy and disclosure provisions,” the department said in a statement.
Meghan Fitzgerald of Fitzroy Legal Service, which is bringing the High Court case, said it had to be reassessed as the amendments could remove the grounds for a challenge, “but if anything it strengthens the resolve to fight to remove secrecy veils”.
The challenge mounted in July had argued the laws breached the protection of freedom of political communication, and were therefore unconstitutional.
The government, which has faced a barrage of criticism over its asylum-seeker polices and the secrecy surrounding the Pacific camps, has defended its overall stance as necessary to stop people from dying at sea.