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Studying the health needs of refugees

Hardly a day passes without a story in our press about Australia's very messy handling of the fraught issues surrounding refugees and asylum seekers. This week there were headlines about police investigations into small businesses here allegedly channeling money overseas to fund people smuggling, and requests from the Gillard government for legal advice on whether the Australian Navy can tow boats back to Indonesia.

The constant media attention often highlights government policy that panders to the fears and prejudices of the electorate. But it also reflects general disquiet in the community over the lack of a humane response.

The interviewee featured here has devoted much of her academic career to the issues of refugees and asylum seekers, particularly their health needs.

Deborah Zion, a senior lecturer at the International Public Health Unit, Monash University in Melbourne, is scathing about our failure to deal well with those claiming asylum here. She focuses on what should be the values and principles underlying our dealings with these desperate people.

The video also contains excerpts from a talk she gave at a special forum on refugees and asylum seekers held earlier this year in Sydney, by the Australian Catholic University as part of its ACU Voice series of forums.

Zion's interest in the area began with her own family. Many of her relatives — Jews from Poland — sought and found refuge in Australia both before and after the Second World War. Their stories formed the background of her childhood, and motivated her as an adult to become engaged in this field.

She earned a Bachelor of Arts with Honours and a Master of Arts from Melbourne University, and a PhD from the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash. She has lectured in Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia as well as Australia.

For more than 20 years Zion has conducted research on ethical issues concerning vulnerable populations. Her most recent major project, conducted with fellow academics Linda Briskman and Bebe Loff, was a study funded by the Australian Research Council entitled 'Caring for Asylum Seekers in Australia: Human Rights and Bioethics'.

The study involved interviewing professionals who had provided health care for asylum seekers in detention. It focused on the dilemmas these workers faced in trying to practise healthcare with a clientele who were deprived of human rights. The study was subsequently published in a number of professional journals.

Zion has published many articles in a range of journals, and has contributed chapters to three books: Globalization and Health: Challenges for Health Law and Bioethics; Measuring Effectiveness in Humanitarian and Development Aid; and Asylum Seekers: International Perspectives on Interdiction and Deterrence. 

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Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. 

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Deborah Zion, refugees, asylum seekers