Why Medical Students are Campaigning for Refugees Detained In A City Hotel

Why Medical Students are Campaigning for Refugees Detained In An Inner-City Hotel

Oct 1, 2020

Written by Nikita Devarajan

Nikita Devarajan is a MD3 student at the University of Queensland with a keen interest in global health and gender equality in medicine.

Medical students together with the local community have been campaigning around the clock for the release of refugees and asylum seekers detained at Brisbane's Kangaroo Point Hotel. 

It is a cool winter’s evening, as cool as Brisbane can be in July. Small groups of socially distanced people in facemasks are huddled around, chatting to each other in hushed tones on the curb and on the road outside the Kangaroo Point Hotel. A small group sitting on the footpath are deep in discussion, one medical student clicks through flashcards on their tablet with an anatomy textbook beside them and another watches a lecture online.

It’s not your average study group session nor your average rally. One of the few conspicuous hints it’s a protest is a large black banner hanging from a balcony of the hotel with the words ‘Where is Justice’ accompanied by the unmistakable image of the scales of justice. Next to the sign on the balcony are a few young men, looking out and waving towards the groups of people on the street below. Whilst some are waving back, others hold signs that say ‘Free the refugees #KP120.’ 

KP120 is a term coined for the 120 refugees and asylum seekers who were brought from Manus Island and Nauru for medical treatment under Medevac laws and subsequently detained at the Kangaroo Point hotel. Some have been detained there for over a year, even after completing their medical treatment, others are still awaiting treatment. Hotels like Kangaroo Point are part of what the government has termed “alternative place of detention” (APOD) for medivac recipients, with similar arrangements in Melbourne.  According to the Acting Minister for Immigration, Alan Tudge, the refugees have a couple of options: they can return to Manus Island or Nauru, or they can apply to go to the United States as part of Australia’s refugee swap deal. But for many refugees and asylum seekers detained here, those options remain illusive

Before the pandemic detainees were allowed on excursions to the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation (Bita) detention centre where detainees could use the gym and do some activities. But the pandemic has suspended all of that. Now, not only are they barred from leaving, but with the risk of Covid-19, they are not permitted any visitors either. Despite continued warnings from peak medical bodies of the heightened risk of Covid-19 transmission in immigration detention, asylum seekers and refugees remain in APODs and also fear being transferred to immigration detention centers. 

In response, Brisbane locals have formed a blockade, checking all vehicles entering and exiting the compound, protecting the refugees from non-consensual transfers out of the hotel to Bita, and calling for their release. Two of those people were Sophia and Gemma, first-year medical students at The University of Queensland (UQ). Their strong sense of responsibility as future healthcare professionals has seen them take an active role volunteering at the blockade, along with being part of the medic response team at recent Black Lives Matter protests. They have also started the UQ Medical Students for Social Justice Facebook group. This group was created to provide an avenue for people who feel passionate about social justice to share their thoughts and ideas with like-minded peers and build a community. Apart from posting updates on current events, this group was used to organise a 24/7 roster for shifts at the KP120 blockade, organising medical students into small study groups, given their heavy university workload— with Gemma, admitting this is where she has completed some of her most focused study.

For both Sophia and Gemma, being part of the KP120 blockade is a necessary part of their duty as medical students. “In turning your back, you would turn your back on an entire ethical code,” Sophia said, in reference to the Declaration of Geneva which will be taken at the commencement of their medical degree. The students added that being involved in these activities has also provided insight into how these issues impact health, and also how the social, political and cultural intersect with medicine. For example, they note that looking at medicine through a lens of intersectionality we are able to understand how oppressive regimes and structures are a recurring factor contributing to poor health outcomes.

  It's not the same sort of vocation as learning skills and learning a science, there's a code of ethics that every single doctor signs up to. We're supposed to be caring for humanity as well. -

Dr Barri Phatarfod

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Several studies have found that mental health of detainees deteriorated significantly during and after detention, with increased symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder presenting in children, adolescents and adults. The men detained at the hotel are not immune from these impacts, with some being in detention for up to 7 years. The men were brought to Brisbane under Medevac laws for treatment of their health conditions, but the isolation and detention system has led to additional mental healths concerns, with instances of self-harm and attempted suicide. There’s also the fear of being transferred to a higher security detention centre as well as retribution from immigration authorities for their activism, which has instigated a vicious cycle of avoiding drawing attention to themselves, even during an exacerbation of their health condition - expediting the deterioration of their health. “It’s a public health nightmare,” Sophia said.

Despite the continued calls from medical professionals to release asylum seekers  and refugees whose imprisonment forces them to be in close proximity with each other, heightening the risk of Covid-19 transmission, the risk of Covid-19 transmission has also been used as an argument against the blockade and protests. But Gemma and Sophia say that when it comes to political actions and recreational activities, different rules apply.

“I think you'll find that the protesters in general are the ones that are very careful about masks, hand sanitiser and social distancing, but down the road there'll be 10,000 people at an AFL match,” Sophia said. 

“There’s a hierarchy of values at play and it’s completely hypocritical to say that this protest poses more of a health risk than being at a bar, doing something that stimulates the economy, or anything that’s seen as Australian and socially validated. Our construction around public health is just so socially arbitrated and it's really important to challenge that and to protest things that are also public health issues.”

Dr Barri Phatarfod, the founder and president of Doctors for Refugees agrees that as medical professionals, it’s important to advocate for the health of the community, beyond the classroom or hospital walls. 

“They have to look and see why they became a doctor in the first place,” Dr Phatarfod said. ”It's not the same sort of vocation as learning skills and learning a science, there's a code of ethics that every single doctor signs up to. We're supposed to be caring for humanity as well. So pretty much everyone who goes into medicine is completely aware of the fact that the role of a doctor extends beyond the science and the technical skills of treating people.” 

Gemma and Sophia, said that one of the most prominent barriers to medical students and doctors becoming advocates is the protection of one’s own image that is projected to the world. They believe it is a common misconception that medical practice is ethically sterile, with professionals being required to uphold a position of neutrality on many matters. “It’s irresponsible to be a healthcare professional and ignore injustices occurring in your own backyard,” Gemma said. 

They also believe getting involved in community advocacy deepens their critical thinking skills and awareness of the complexity of societal issues. 

“It's incredibly important for you to develop your ethical muscle as a doctor,” Sophia said. “The assumption that the practice of medicine is inherently ethical is dangerous, and if the majority of future healthcare professionals were to believe that, medicine as an institution is at risk of remaining stagnant, if not digressing.”

Recently, Gemma and Sophia published an open letter to Queensland Health, the Princess Alexandra Hospital and the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital calling on them to take action against the health and human rights abuses at the Kangaroo Point Hotel detention centre. The future for these men in detention remains precarious and the students will continue to offer support as long as is needed. Anyone wishing to be part of the medical response team at future protests and blockades can request to join the UQ Medical Students for Social Justice Facebook group.

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