Flinders Medical Students' Society

Border Force Act 2015

Explanatory note for FMSS Members

There has been a lot of publicity recently about the Border Force Act (the “Act”), which came into effect on 1 July 2015. Many doctors and peak medical bodies have condemned the restrictions the Act enforces on doctors. As you’re likely to have been hectic with study, you might not have had a chance to delve into the details of it all. You might be wondering, “What exactly is the Act?”, “What’s so bad about it?” and “How does it affect us, as medical students?”. FMSS and HHRG have prepared this document for its members with the aim of answering some of these questions.

What is the Border Force Act 2015?

The Border Force Act 2015 was passed with bipartisan support and came into effect on 1 July 2015. It established a new department - the Australian Border Force (“ABF”), with an ABF Commissioner – to oversee the operation of Australian detention centres, including the health services provided to the asylum-seekers housed within these facilities by doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers and other allied health professionals.

What’s so bad about it, and how does it impact us medical students?

Under Section 42 of the Act, “entrusted persons” (i.e. doctors and other health professionals) may be imprisoned for up to 2 years if they publicly disclose concerns about the conditions endured by asylum seekers in detention, given that this information is labelled as “protected information”. Such conditions, however, have been variously described as “appalling”, “reprehensible” and “deplorable” by medical practitioners who have witnessed them, bringing it into the public domain to raise awareness about the substantial and imminent health dangers faced by these vulnerable individuals. Such professionals feel forced to publically shame our government processes, given existing internal channels have failed to adequately address such concerns.

Section 42 means that incidences of sexual abuse (including child sexual abuse), physical assault, widespread mental health issues (including extremely high rates of depression, self-harm and attempted suicide) and inhumane conditions may not be publicly reported without the potential for imprisonment.

In 2015, when Australia is conducting a Royal Commission into institutional sexual abuse, where awareness and acceptance of mental illness is being strongly advocated for, and where issues of domestic violence are now being taught in high schools, this silencing of institutionalised abuse is a matter of grave concern.

The Act promotes a culture of secrecy supported on a platform of “protected information” that is in Australia’s interest of national security. Does preventing the public from being aware of or scrutinising what occurs in detention centres in the name of Australian citizens sound like a reasonable argument? What does this come at the expense of? It may very well act to contradict our professional obligations, as doctors, to advocate for the most vulnerable within our society that remain within a system that does not have adequate measures in place to address the health dangers faced by these individuals.

As both medical students and doctors, we have a duty to not only treat, but to help protect and advance the rights and dignity of our patients. The Medical Board of Australia’s Code of Conduct (which all doctors and medical students registered with the Board must abide by) states:

Good medical practice involves:

5.3 - Using your expertise and influence to protect and advance the health and wellbeing of individual patients, communities and populations.

8.11.1 - When these interests compromise, or might reasonably be perceived by an independent observer to compromise, the doctor’s primary duty to the patient, doctors must recognise and resolve this conflict in the best interests of the patient.

Are there any protections in place?

There are several protections in place. Firstly, the Act itself states that information may be disclosed if “the entrusted person reasonably believes that the disclosure is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious threat to the life or health of an individual.” Furthermore, the Public Interests Disclosures Act (“PIDA”) only allows for disclosure in the face of “substantial and imminent danger to the health or safety” of one or more persons.

The terms “substantial and imminent” and “serious threat” may be narrowly interpreted so that many important disclosures may not be covered. For example, disclosures regarding threats to mental health, child development, or environmental conditions, which are unacceptable but may not pose an “imminent” danger are not necessarily protected. Furthermore, the Act expressly precludes whistleblowers from disclosing “sensitive law enforcement information”, the definition of which is ambiguous and could arguably be applied to the entire process of detention. Finally, the PIDA does not apply to disclosures relating to detention centres outside of Australian jurisdiction, including offshore detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island.

In short, the exemptions provided in the Act and the PIDA may not provide adequate protection for detention centre employees who wish to disclose information about conditions or the wellbeing of asylum seekers.

What is the official stance on this issue from other medical organisations?

A number of peak medical organisations have condemned the Act in the strongest possible terms. A wide range of medical and allied health peak bodies and colleges have released a Joint Statement opposing the Act. AMSA has issued a Press Release and an Open Letter signed by 40 health professionals and teachers who have been involved in detention centre health management has been released, all publicly opposing the Act.

What is FMSS and HHRG’s stance?

The Flinders Medical Students’ Society (FMSS) and Health and Human Rights Group (HHRG) stand with other medical organisations and professionals in opposing the restrictions the Act enforces on healthcare professionals. We advocate for social equity, human rights and ethical conduct and are committed to the promotion of health and wellbeing for all members of our society. We are, and will continue to be, compelled to the physical and mental health of our patients and on that basis oppose the restrictions contained in the Act that we believe are contrary to these values.

As AMSA President James Lawler stated, “The Federal Government is attempting to blackmail doctors into silence by leveraging their personal freedom against their desire to ensure the wellbeing of their patients.” We believe that this is unacceptable.

What can I do?

FMSS encourages its members to contact your local Member of Parliament. This can be done directly by you, or if you would prefer, AMSA can send a letter on your behalf. You may also wish to sign a petition to end human rights abuses in detention.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact Holly Richter, FMSS Vice-President External, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Kym Huynh, HHRG Refugee Health Advocate, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..