#Detentionharmshealth: How a small idea became a march with a big impact by Adele Evans

Photo by Green Left Weekly

“As medical students, we believe health is a human right. We are taught to care for all people, no matter who they are or where they come from. To treat all people with compassion and respect. To advocate for our patients…This is not about politics, this is about health. This is about human life”Carrie Lee UNSW Medical Student and Detention Harms Health Organiser

On Saturday April 7th, over 400 medical students, health professionals, representatives from local organisations and members of the public met at Hyde Park, Sydney. Together, dressed in lab coats and medical scrubs, we marched for the human right to health and safety for refugee and asylum seekers on offshore detention.

We marched because Australia’s offshore mandatory detention centres harm health. The conditions of offshore processing centres have been described by the United Nations as “unsustainable, inhumane and contrary to [our] human rights obligations”.

Photo Credit Green Left Weekly

Yet, the Australian government has refused to take responsibility for their actions, and refused to heed the calls of AMSA, the AMA and other peak medical bodies to create a more transparent and accountable system — calls made due to deep concern for the health and welfare of people under our protection.

As the future doctors of Australia, we could no longer stand by and watch; we needed to do something.

Six months ago, the idea of a march was suggested. Something of this scale had never been done by medical students before, but we needed do something large enough to create not just a ripple, but a wave of impact through the social conscience of Australia.

Photo by Alex Cui

What started out as a small idea soon grew into a 6 month commitment for a group of NSW medical students organisng this march. Months of planning ensued, including countless skype meetings, social media strategising, and logistical planning.

Last Saturday, those six months of planning came to fruition.  

I arrived in Sydney just hours before the march from an overnight train from Wagga Wagga and I was a nervous wreck. The reality of six months of late night emergency skype calls, endless emails, huge setbacks and celebrations came crashing in.

I was paralysed, sick to my stomach with fear: after all this work, would this even make a difference?

The reality was that we were just students organising a protest against the Australian government. Against a society that largely does not want to hear about what is occurring on our offshore detention centres. Suddenly I felt incredibly small, and feared there was nothing we could do to help the men, women and children being tortured by our government on Manus Island and Nauru.

This fear continued even as we started setting up for the march in Hyde Park. Then, people began to arrive. Medical students donning their scrubs, lab coat and steths, holding their signs and banners. A troop of Grandmothers against detention of refugees set up camp. The head of the AMA NSW, Professor Brad Frankum, chatted to the speakers and students. Soon, the pathway in Hyde Park was filled with university students, high school students, doctors, nurses, teachers and people from all parts of society. Suddenly, we had a rally.

Photo by Tiyasha Sabud

Within the crowd, we were honoured to be joined by a refugee who had spent 32 months in the Nauru detention centre. He thanked us for all that we are doing and urged us to continue. He described Nauru as “hell”. He said he hated Australia until he came here, and still struggles because of what the government had done to him and others.He has not seen his wife or 12-year-old child who remain in Sri Lanka in six years.

Looking around, the march was a breathtaking picture of diversity, of love and frustration.

It was rare to see such a diverse crowd unified over a common interest.

That was because we were marching for universal values: health, safety, dignity.

Everyone agrees on these values.

Legally, our government does too – Australia is a signatory to international law which state the right of people to seek asylum in our country if they have a well-founded fear for their life. Yet currently we are violating that law by torturing people. This is why we were marching.

As the crowd grew, our speeches began. Medical student and Gadigal and Darkinjung man Dylan Graham opened by acknowledging Country. Speeches were made by incredible advocates for refugee and asylum seekers including paediatrician and whistle blower Professor David Isaacs, former head of mental health services on offshore detention Dr Peter Young, Rwandan refugee and community advocate Dr Nadine Shema and human rights lawyer George Newhouse.

Photo by Alex Cui

Each with a unique story to tell. Each shared a resounding message of concern, of sacrifice for speaking out, and of heartbreak for what they witnessed on Manus Island and Nauru.

“There is hope. The doctors and medical students that we work with can, and do make change. Real change.” said George Newhouse. “Detention not only harms health, it destroys lives”.

With this, we began our march down Hyde Park proudly holding our “Detention Harms Health” banners and calling out our clear message: “health is a human right for all”. 

Looking back, it was breathtaking to see the power of the march, of what we as medical students dispersed across a state could achieve. 

I have never been more proud to be a medical student because at this moment, I was embodying everything that a doctor must be: an advocate for health, a voice for those without one, courageous to stand up against a system that harms.

We returned to Hyde Park to hear from march organisers, UNSW student Carrie Lee and WSU student Kevin Chan, the original students who initiated the march. They brought home the reason why we were marching, and why as future doctors we MUST advocate for those whose health is being harmed by our system.

As Carrie said,   

“When a healthy 24-year-old man dies from a leg infection on Manus Island, something is horribly wrong.

When children are put behind barbed wires instead of in classrooms, something is horribly wrong.

When our government knows this, but still denies responsibility, something is horribly, sickeningly wrong

And we are here to say, as medical students, as future doctors – this is not good enough. We will NOT tolerate this cruelty and we will not stand by in silence… 

We cannot afford to wait for the government to wake up and remember their conscience. Because they won’t. “

After the march, we made our way to Cockatoo Island, for a photo at Ai Wei Wei’s “Law of the Journey”, a striking 60 metre installation of a lifeboat filled with more than 250 faceless figures. A haunting piece that demands you humanise the “queue jumpers” and “boat people”. It removes all the distractions of a political crisis and leaves only the crisis of human life and suffering.

A crowd of several dozen supporters arrived. Doctors who had just finished their shifts, medical students, refugees, university lecturers, grandmothers against detention and more. We raised our hands over our heads in solidarity with the protesting men on Manus Island.

We are watching. We will not be silenced. We will not condone this.

Later that night, I sat at dinner with core organisers of the march. Many of us had never met in person before, yet after months of organising the march together, we shared a powerful bond of mateship and respect for each other..

It was there that we received the news that the men on Manus Island had heard about our march and had sent their thanks. Silence fell over the table as we were all overcome with awe.

We never expected this. We never thought the asylum seekers themselves would hear about what we did. Safe to say there wasn’t a dry eye at the table.

What I was overcome by was the human connection we had made. Suddenly these people on offshore detention weren’t obscure people I was marching for because I believe in justice and human rights. These were real people. People being detained and punished by our government for seeking asylum. Imprisoned for seeking help. Every second spent on this march was suddenly worth it. And I would do it all again.

This march was just the beginning. It started a ripple effect that will slowly but surely make waves that will eventually lead to the end of offshore processing and this cruel regime. I refuse to believe otherwise, because I refuse to partake in a future where doctors, who pledge to “first, do no harm”, are bystanders to systems that harm people.

Australia’s offshore detention centres are inhumane. They are illegal. They are incredibly dangerous. And they must end.

The answer in this lies in you, in the future leaders of our world. To do nothing in the face of injustice is to passively support it.

We all have a responsibility as future doctors to educate ourselves and advocate for right to health for all. As WSU student and march organiser Kevin Chan said at the closing of the march

Many of us may feel hindered by our smallness amidst the great ocean of society. Yet if we act upon what we think is right and pursue it towards its end, we will surely surpass anything we envisioned at the start.”

This is a huge issue. This will take courage. But it is not impossible.

Photo by Alex Cui

Throughout the year AMSA Crossing Borders will be providing you all with opportunities to educate yourself about refugee and asylum seeker health and ways to advocate as individuals and as collective group.

This will begin in the coming weeks with our follow up campaign from the march – a nation-wide MP callout on April 23. Keep an eye out for the event on the AMSA Crossing Borders Facebook page and through your local global health group.

Ultimately, you are the leaders of our world, and together we will shape what kind of future and legacy we will leave. An opportunity presents itself to us right now: people are being tortured under our governments care. What will you do about it?

Join us. Stay informed, stay active. Be the change you want to see in the world.

Adele Evans

AMSA CB National Coordinator

There are some very important people to thank in organising of this march. It would not have been possible without the ongoing efforts from some incredible medical students. These are the people that made the march possible.

Thank-you to Carrie Lee and Kevin Chan, the students who began the idea of this march many months ago and have headed the organisation from day one. You started something incredible.

And to the core organising committee – Ahshvini Cenan (UoN), Gabby Cullen (UoN), Rachel Wong (UNSW), Salwa Barmaky (UNSW), Jumaana Abdu (UNSW), David Athan (Griffith), RJ Seatress (Melbourne) and Ben Stewart (USyd). You all made this possible.

Thank-you also to AMSA, the AMSA GH family, NSWMSC and the NSW Global Health Groups for giving us the platform we need.

Finally, thankyou to Alanna Maycock and Professor David Isaacs. We are forever indebted for your unwavering support, guidance and mentorship. Thank-you for all you have done.

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