Published: December 16, 2013 – 9:09AM
The Abbott government has disbanded a key group that provided advice on the health of asylum seekers in detention, as research reveals psychiatric problems – such as self-harm – are the most common reasons for the large number of detainee visits to hospital emergency departments.
Members of the Immigration Health Advisory Group (IHAG) received letters late on Friday telling them the group would be dissolved and replaced by one adviser.
Dr Paul Alexander, the group’s chairman and a former head of Joint Health Command in the Defence Force, will become the sole independent health adviser to the Immigration Department.
“This is probably one of the most serious, high-risk approaches that [the] government could take in terms of the outcomes for asylum seekers and refugees,” a source close to the situation said.
“They have sacked the people in the country who know the most about refugees. Torture and trauma services psychologists who have worked extensively with refugees, mental health nurses who know about refugees.”
The group included 12 medical professionals, among them psychiatrists, psychologists and GPs, with specialist knowledge about refugees.
According to Choong-Siew Yong, the Australian Medical Association’s representative on the group, it was an important conduit back to professional organisations that had expressed concern about the standards of healthcare and the health needs of asylum seekers in detention.
“The decision to disband the group raises questions about how the concerns of the professions will be addressed, Dr Yong said.
“There’s a shutdown of information [about asylum seekers] but this is a shutdown of government accepting the need for independent expert professional advice,” said Professor Louise Newman, the director of the Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology at Monash University, and a member of the group.
A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison could not be reached.
On Monday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott called reports of the disbanded advice service a “complete beat up”.
“There was a committee which was not very effectual,” told ABC’s Radio National.
“The chairman of the committee is now the departmental medical officer who is providing advice in a more sustained way.
The disbandment of the group follows the announcement on Friday that the federal government would not be renewing the Salvation Armys contract to provide humanitarian services to asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. The contract will end in February.
It comes as the latest edition of the Medical Journal of Australia publishes research revealing that 50.1 per cent of immigration centre detainees in Darwin had visited the Royal Darwin Hospital emergency department at least once in 2011. Of the 518 detainees who made 770 visits to the department, 155 people attended twice or more.
This included 187 attendances (24.3 per cent) for psychiatric problems, including self-harm, and 146 by children, of which 15 were for self-harm.
with Judith Ireland
This story was found at: Sydney Morning Herald