I must have given hundreds of talks and speeches of various types over the last twenty years on the issue of refugees and people seeking asylum – and written plenty of pieces on the topic (not least on this blog). Last weekend I was speaking to a group of inspiring young medical students at Griffith University on the Gold Coast who were seeking to get a better understanding of health, social and political factors affecting people seeking asylum. I’d spoken before at similar events put together by the same organisation – Towards International Medical Equality. But it was only while talking to them that the central relevance of the fundamental medical maxim – First, Do No Harm – crystallised in my mind.
There are other phrases that encapsulate a similar idea – some less elegantly than others – but in policy areas where it is not always clear what course of action is the best, that fundamental initial principle should at the very least be a guide as to what not to do – First, Do No Harm.
At the moment, the considered policy of the Australian government – mirrored to a very large extent by the main opposition party – is to knowingly inflict serious, prolonged harm on innocent people. The situation in the Australian government organised and funded detention camps on both Nauru and Manus Island is nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe. Perhaps the worst aspect of this is that it has always been almost inevitable that this was going to occur. We knew the enormity f the human harm that would occur as a result of this approach, and yet it was pursued despite, or more likely because, of this knowledge.
There is obviously no quick or easy solution to the global reality of large and growing numbers of refugees, or even to how best to deal with the relatively small number of these people who seek to make their way directly to Australia.
But even complex issues often have aspects of them which are very simple. And surely one of the clearest and basic principles in determining how best to deal with a situation involving human suffering is not to deliberately add to that suffering.
This coming federal election campaign provides a very clear opportunity to indicate to the two largest parties that policy ‘solutions’ which rely fundamentally on inflicting serious harm on vulnerable, innocent people are not acceptable or supportable. There are and will always be other ways to address an issue.
The brutality must stop. It can be stopped now. It must be stopped – now.