Legal and ethical implications of medically enforced feeding of detained asylum seekers on hunger strike

Mary A Kenny, Derrick M Silove and Zachary Steel
Med J Aust 2004; 180 (5): 237-240.


  • The current practice of non-consensual medical treatment of hunger-striking asylum seekers in detention needs closer inquiry.

  • An Australian Government regulation empowers the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) to authorise non-consensual medical treatment for a person in immigration detention if they are at risk of physical harm, but there are doubts about whether the regulation would withstand legal challenge.

  • Authorisation by DIMIA does not compel medical practitioners to enforce treatment if such action is contrary to their “ethical, moral or religious convictions”.

  • The World Medical Association has established guidelines for doctors involved in managing people on hunger strikes. The Declaration of Tokyo (1975) and the Declaration of Malta (1991) both prohibit the use of non-consensual force-feeding of hunger strikers who are mentally competent.

  • If called upon to treat hunger strikers, medical practitioners should be aware of their ethical and legal responsibilities, and that they should act independently of government or institutional interests.

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  • Mary A Kenny1
  • Derrick M Silove2
  • Zachary Steel3

  • 1 School of Law, Murdoch University, Murdoch, WA.
  • 2 School of Psychiatry, University of New South Wales, and Centre for Population Mental Health Research, South Western Sydney Area Health Service, Liverpool, NSW.


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  • 13. B v Croydon Health Authority [1995] 1 All E R 683, at 686.
  • 14. Leigh v Gladstone (1909) 26 TLR 139.
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