01 March 2012

Politician criticised over Australian immigration statement

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An open letter to Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison has criticised the minister for statements he made in a press release regarding the reported typhoid infection at an Australian immigration detention centre on Christmas Island.

Australian immigration

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison's press release has been refuted and condemned.

Mr Morrison published a press release on his own website that claimed the government's failure to control Australian immigration had put citizens at risk of infection.

"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," said Mr Morrison.

"Of greatest immediate concern is the risk to Australians living on Christmas Island, including children attending the local schools, as well as those who come in direct contact with asylum seekers including our defence forces, Customs and border protection officers, federal police, detention centre workers, health professionals and immigration staff.

"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.

"As long as Labor's soft policies on our borders continue, these boats will continue to arrive along with the risks they carry, including people with serious communicable diseases."

Australian immigration has been plagued in recent months as record numbers of asylum seeking boats arrive and overcrowded detention centres have been condemned by charities. Ministers both in government and opposition have accused their counterparts of using the worsening situation for their own political gains but it is a physician who has spoken out against Mr Morrison this time.

Dr Trent Yarwood, an Infectious Diseases Physician and Public Health Registrar, wrote Mr Morrison a public letter in which he condemned the politician for sensationalising the typhoid reports in order to promote his own agenda.

"I believe [the press release] was a crass piece of political opportunism and was not using the plight of asylum seekers for point-scoring, but plumbed new depths by making the health conditions suffered by these unfortunate people a further reason for the Australian people to fear them," wrote Dr Yarwood.

Dr Yarwood then quoted the figures published in Mr Morrison's press release which listed the diseases and number of cases found in Australia's detention centres in 2011 and compared to the number of cases of the same diseases found in Australia outside of detention; every disease represented an almost negligible fraction of the total cases.

"Even without medical knowledge, it can be seen from the figures that the numbers of cases suffered by asylum seekers make up a tiny fraction of the total number of cases in Australia and the tone your press release vastly over-emphasises the risk to the Australian population.

Dr Yarwood continued that the majority of the diseases were already present in Australia, and therefore could not be introduced, as Mr Morrison had said. He then explained how the diseases were transmitted, particularly typhoid, and stated that due to Australia's sophisticated public sanitation and good public health system, the risk of transmission was extremely small.

Dr Yarwood stated that the risk of contamination was no greater than a similar risk of tourists bringing diseases but declared that Mr Morrison would not criticise the tourist industry over the issue.

"Your media release is ill informed, not supported by publicly accessible health data, discriminatory and seems to have been intended to prey on fears of the foreigner and fear of pestilence. It has no merit either political or scientific and should be withdrawn," concluded Dr Yarwood.

The Australian Visa Bureau is an independent migration consultancy specialising in helping people lodge their Australia visa applications with the Australian High Commission.

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