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Monash Bioeth Rev. 2004 Oct;23(4):93-103.

Science and the common good: indefinite, non-reviewable mandatory detention of asylum seekers and the research imperative.

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School of Psychiatry, University of New South Wales, UK.


Despite a strong historical record of resettling and providing care for refugee populations, the Australian Federal Government has increasingly implemented harsh and restrictive policies regarding the treatment and management of asylum seekers. Most controversial of these has been the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, a policy applied indiscriminately and without discretion where individual cases have not been subject to judicial review or time constraints. From the outset health professionals have raised concerns about the possible adverse mental health impacts of prolonged detention. In contrast, government representatives have characterized conditions in detention as benign and comfortable, and have consistently contested criticism of detention, often citing a lack of scientific evidence as tacit support for the continuation of the policy. Nevertheless, requests for access to the detention centres to undertake rigorous scientific investigations have gone unheeded. In this context we argue that the Australian Government has failed to uphold its commitment to good governance by allowing transparency, openness and a willingness to have the impact of its policies scrutinized by scientists. The manifest conflict of interest in the government position leads to a breach in the normal social contract between mental health researchers and those responsible for the policy of detention. There is, we argue, a legitimate moral imperative in such situations for clinical researchers to breach the walls of enforced silence and give a voice to those who are afflicted. This imperative, however, must be carefully balanced against the risks that may face detainees agreeing to participate in such research.

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