Australia's treatment of refugee and asylum seeker children: the views of Australian paediatricians

Elizabeth J M Corbett, Hasantha Gunasekera, Alanna Maycock and David Isaacs
Med J Aust 2014; 201 (7): 393-398. || doi: 10.5694/mja14.00279


Objective: Australia's response to refugees and people seeking asylum is a matter of national debate. We sought to determine the knowledge and attitudes of paediatricians about refugee and asylum seeker issues (both onshore and offshore).

Design, setting and participants: In November 2013, we emailed a questionnaire web link to all Australian general and community paediatricians registered with the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.

Main outcome measures: Proportion of respondents by demographic characteristics using χ2 and Fisher exact test (α = 0.05).

Results: There were 139 respondents (response rate, 40.5%). Respondents' characteristics were broadly representative of all Australian general paediatricians. Over 80% correctly used the term “asylum seeker” rather than “boat person” or “illegal immigrant” for children applying for protection. Over 80% agreed with the Australian Medical Association assertion that mandatory detention of children constitutes child abuse, and disagreed with offshore processing. Less than half knew which subgroups were eligible for Medicare or had had pre-departure HIV and tuberculosis screening tests; or that the average stay in refugee camps before settlement in Australia was more than 10 years. Only about 60% knew that the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship was the legal guardian of detained unaccompanied minors. One in eight knew about the Medicare eligibility hotline. Respondents' sex, where their medical degree was obtained, frequency of seeing refugees and asylum seekers and years of experience had little association with responses.

Conclusions: Australian paediatricians considered mandatory detention a form of child abuse and strongly disagreed with offshore processing. There is a clear need for education about practical issues such as current health screening practices and Medicare eligibility.

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  • Elizabeth J M Corbett1
  • Hasantha Gunasekera2,1
  • Alanna Maycock2
  • David Isaacs2,1

  • 1 Sydney Medical School, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW.
  • 2 Children's Hospital at Westmead, Sydney, NSW.


We thank the medical students who pilot-tested the questionnaire and Karen Zwi and Philip Britton for their advice.

Competing interests:

Hasantha Gunasekera was contracted to provide paediatric services for International Health and Medical Services in Nauru in September 2014. He only visited the health care clinic, not the camp, and all proceeds were donated to the refugee clinic at the Children's Hospital at Westmead.


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