More than 1,000 health care workers and students protested at a number of hospitals across Australia on 30 October against the federal government’s immigration policy.

At the Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick, protesters assembled in their lunch breaks holding placards demanding that children be released from detention. Staff also held a large banner that read: “Detention harms children”.

Speakers called on the Turnbull government to shut down Australia’s detention centres and process asylum seekers’ claims while they live in the community.

Speaking to Red Flag, Karen Zwi, a specialist in refugee health at UNSW, insisted that the protest was intended as a serious health message to politicians, who have refused to act on the overwhelming evidence that detention harms children.

Zwi described some of the health impacts that detention has on children, including growth and development issues, nightmares, learning difficulties, extreme anxiety and stress.

A 2014 investigation by the Australian Human Rights Commission reported that children detained in refugee prison camps experienced high rates of assault, sexual abuse and incidents of self-harm. The same report describes children attempting to starve themselves in detention.

Kathy, a paediatric nurse at the Children’s Hospital, told Red Flag that she felt confident to protest after staff at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital publicly defied the government earlier in October. Workers there refused to discharge a woman and her child from the hospital back to detention. 

For health workers and others, speaking out about abuse and mistreatment in Australia’s network of refugee detention centres now carries a marked risk. Under the Border Force Act, passed with bipartisan support, workers who come into contact with refugee and asylum seekers detained by the government can be imprisoned if they disclose conditions in detention.