RISE is concerned by the comments of Scott Morrison, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, who on 27 February 2012 said “when illegal boats turn up in our waters there will always be the risk that people on these boats will carry serious communicable diseases. The more boats there are, the greater the risk of serious diseases presenting…Despite the best efforts of our health professionals and other officials responsible for dealing with these situations, there are no guarantees that the arrival of people carrying these diseases could not lead to an outbreak on Christmas Island or the transfer of these diseases to the mainland. This is the risk of failed border protection policy.” The full text of Mr. Morrison’s press release is available here.

The comment made by Scott Morrison is yet another tactic to drive fear into the minds of the Australian public towards asylum seekers arriving by boat—this time cloaked in the seemingly neutral language of ‘health.’

While there have been a small number of cases of communicable diseases found amongst asylum seekers, he conveniently neglects to mention some important points. First, the number of the infections he lists is small compared with the numbers found within the Australian population.

Second, nearly all the infections listed, except malaria, already exist in Australia. In discussion with Dr Uma Parameswaran, Infectious Diseases Registrar, for most of the diseases listed by Scott Morrison, “you don’t have to arrive from overseas or even travel overseas to get these infections… for example, hepatitis B and C are both found in Australia ….and diseases like syphilis, gonorrhoea and chlamydia are sexually transmitted infections for which there are a large number of cases being diagnosed amongst Australians each year”.

Third, most of the diseases listed pose a very low risk in terms of infectivity or risk of transmission to other people. Nearly all the diseases Mr Morrison refers to cannot be contracted (as he suggests) merely through being in the presence of asylum seekers. Hence, the very low risk of transmission to people at Christmas Island, and so the wider Australian population.

For further statistical information on asylum seeker health in Christmas Island (including the insignificant numbers of infectious diseases, and the means through which these may possibly be transmitted) , we refer to an open letter from Dr Trent Yarwood Infectious Diseases Physician and Public Health Registrar.

Finally, and most importantly, given Australia’s legal obligations under international refugee law, health concerns are irrelevant in determining refugee and asylum seeker status.

Submitted by Mathavan Parameswaran


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