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Organisations such as UNICEF and Save the Children tell us there are many children overseas facing ill-health and death because of natural disasters and wars. The harm to children is compounded by oppressive, corrupt and incompetent governments although aid agencies generally avoid saying so for the sake of continued access and the safety of their workers. The Nobel Prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen, makes a cogent argument that historic famines and hunger generally are a result of deliberate policy or failure of governments.[1]

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I have had some experience of children in New Zealand suffering deprivation and have been involved along with many others in calling for changes to government policy to bring it to an end. I have not been able to bring myself to take up the cause of children overseas who are chronically deprived. It is more than I can cope with. The need seems overwhelming and the remedy uncertain although I admire the organisations and people who do intervene. 

In the last nine months I have suspended this non-involvement in the case of the asylum-seeker children interned by the Australian government in the camps on Nauru and elsewhere because:

  • Australia is our near neighbour and I have some understanding of their culture;
  • I have an idea of the children’s suffering from my professional knowledge of the nature of child abuse;
  • Reports by the Australian Human Rights Commission and health workers who have serviced the camps have detailed the harm to the children;
  • Australian colleagues whom I respect are themselves protesting publicly and
  • There is some hope that New Zealand opinions might help end the shameful policies.    

I and 39 other New Zealand child health workers sent a letter in July, 2015 to the Australian Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition expressing our support for Australian colleagues and protesting about a new law with a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment for reporting abuses in the detention camps.

I and my medical colleagues Scott Metcalfe and Alison Blaiklock have written an editorial for the New Zealand Medical Journal, published on 22 April, 2016. It discusses the ethical position of health workers in relation to ill-treatment. The Australian Medical Association and The Royal Australasian College of Physicians representing Australian and New Zealand doctors have spoken out. There are circumstances when doctors should speak out, individually and through their organisations. As the editorial points out it is an ethical duty.

[1] Sen, A. (1999) Development as freedom. Chapter 7, Famines and other crises. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 160-188.

Child Abuse in Australian camps

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