Should we boycott? That’s only part of the question

By Ryan Essex

In my article, I ask whether clinicians should boycott Australian immigration detention. While the harm of this system has been well documented, as has the futility of delivering healthcare, I argue against a boycott. I don’t however dismiss a boycott entirely. To understand this point, the question of whether we should boycott needs to be broadened: that is, not only should we boycott, but how should we respond to major human rights abuses? When phrased like this a boycott is only part of the answer, an answer that also lies at least partly outside of the traditional medical and ethics literatures.

In Australian immigration detention centres, clinical work alone has been largely ineffective at bringing about change, as has protest, whistleblowing and civil disobedience. The government has maintained its policies, attempted to shut down dissent and attack critics. This has left many questioning what we should do in pursuing reform. What is clear in the Australian context is that change is unlikely to come through clinical work, advocacy or more traditional political processes. Equally, it is also unlikely to come through boycotting alone. Social change is complex and messy.

While there are a number of examples of the healthcare community engaging in protest and collective action, both historically and in response to Australian immigration detention (some of which were discussed above), rarely have we turned to theories of social change to inform such action. Social movement theory for example, could begin to fill some of these gaps. Social movements are collective challenges that aim to bring about social and political change; they often form in the face of injustice and recognise that change must be fought for. Social movement theory recognizes social and political change as dynamic, complex, and explicitly political. Importantly, it also allows us to begin to consider the role clinicians should play in protest, how they support and amplify the protest of others and more generally, how they may apply their skills and status to be most effective in pursuing social and political change. Within this literature, a boycott could be pursued as one course of action, however social and political change often does not occur solely from boycotting. If we are to be effective in pursuing social change we need to consider a range of other questions.

At this present moment, Australia is at a critical juncture. After almost two decades of increasingly regressive policy, there now appears to be public support for the reform of mandatory immigration detention. While it is difficult to pinpoint the factors that have contributed to this long-awaited shift, it would have not occurred without two decades of protest in which the healthcare community have had a central role. Ongoing pressure is needed however, both within Australian and internationally and not just to challenge Australia’s policies. How the healthcare community positions itself in response to human rights abuses will unfortunately be an enduring and global problem.

For those interested, there are a number of campaigns ongoing. Here, here and here.

Paper: Should clinicians boycott Australian immigration detention?

Author: Ryan Essex

Affiliation: PhD Candidate, The University of Sydney, School of Public Health, Sydney Health Ethics

Competing Interests: None declared

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