What are the responsibilities of AABHL in relation to Australia’s policy on asylum seeker detention?

A/Prof. Deborah Zion1, A/Prof. Paul Macneill2, A/Prof. Chris Jordens2, Prof. Angus Dawson2

1Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia, 2University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia

Seeking asylum is protected by internationally agreed legal conventions, to which Australia is a signatory. Those seeking asylum are often fleeing violence, conflict or other serious threats to well-being. In 1992 the Australian government introduced a system of mandatory detention for asylum seekers while their claims for refugee status are assessed. More recently, asylum seekers who arrive by boat have been singled out for especially harsh treatment, detained off-shore in two locations: Manus (Papua New Guinea) and Nauru. The conditions in these camps, which include high levels of self-harm, riots and preventable deaths due to inadequate medical treatment, aim explicitly to deter other potential Asylum Seekers from attempting to come to Australia. The treatment of detainees has been held to be a clear abuse of basic human rights by a number of national and international investigations.

AABHL is a regional bioethics organisation with a large Australian membership. To our knowledge AABHL has remained silent in response to this situation (despite this issue being raised by Macneill (2003) with a prior Australasian bioethics body). We will use the case of Australian asylum seeker policy to raise a series of questions about the responsibility of AABHL as an organisation.

In this workshop, through a guided discussion of all participants in the workshop, we will seek to:

  • Argue that AABHL as an organisation has a responsibility to do something on this issue
  • Explore what action might be appropriate
  • Explore possible counter-arguments to taking action (e.g. people have different views, individuals can act but an organisation should be neutral, given the injustices in the world where do we stop, AABHL does not just have Australian membership etc.) and suggest why they do not outweigh the proposed responsibility.


Deborah Zion is A/Prof. at Victoria University. She has focused much of her recent research on ethical and legal issues related to asylum seekers in Australia.

Paul Macneill is A/Prof. at Sydney Health Ethics. He wrote a paper published in 2003 in the journal ‘Bioethics’ calling for bioethics organisations to act in response to Australia’s asylum seeker policies.

Chris Jordens is A/Prof. at Sydney Health Ethics. His research has covered a broad spectrum of issues in bioethics but has always focused on philosophy, politics and language.

Angus is Professor of Bioethics and Director of Sydney Health Ethics. His main research interests are public health ethics, research ethics and global ethics.