Indian doctors ask Australian government to stop Haneef backlash

By Neena Bhandari, IANS

Sydney : Disturbed with the government's "couldn't care less" attitude, Indian doctors in Australia have said efforts must be stepped up to stop stereotyping of overseas trained medical professionals in the wake of their colleague Muhammad Haneef being charged with supporting terrorism.

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The widely publicised case of Indian doctor Haneef, who is in solitary confinement in a Brisbane detention centre after being charged with "recklessly" supporting a terror group by giving his mobile phone SIM card to people planning the foiled bombings in Britain, has led to a backlash against the Indian community.

Australian-Indians and Indians on work, tourist and student visas have been taunted, facing a barrage of questions in local trains and buses, offices and doctors' surgeries.

One patient told an Indian doctor, "I don't feel confident entrusting my body to you". Another professional was asked by his colleagues, "You people need to be properly screened before being allowed to come here and work."

A delegation of United India Association (UIA) and Overseas and Australian Medical Graduates Association (OAMGA) members will be meeting Federal Attorney General Phillip Ruddock on Monday to raise their concerns.

"We have written to the Australian government that we are very concerned by its `couldn't care less' attitude and apathy, which is affecting the Indian community. The government has not been able to appreciate and understand the backlash we are facing in the real society due to this highly publicised case," said UIA president Raj Natarajan.

"The government must immediately step up to remove the broader anxiety so that Indians at large are not blamed," added Natarajan, who last week met Immigration and Citizenship Minister Kevin Andrews.

Andrews told him the decision in Haneef's case would have been the same irrespective of nationality or religion.

OAMGA president V.R. Nagamma said foreign trained doctors would be reluctant to practice in Australia if they were treated with suspicion.

"The media should project a positive image proactively by stating the contribution made by overseas and Indian doctors, avoid stereotype reporting and be more sensitive in reporting so as not create a negative image," Nagamma told IANS.

She said the negative publicity following Haneef's arrest would make Indian medical graduates think twice about coming to Australia to work.

Prabhat Sinha, who has been a principal of a Medical Centre in Sydney for over 30 years, added: "The case has not made any one happy, not the over 230,000 strong Indian community, not the dedicated doctors from the Indian subcontinent, not the civil libertarians, not the legal fraternity and nor the media."

People in Australia want the series of highly damaging and embarrassing bungles by the police and prosecutors explained in the interests of natural justice and to restore public confidence in counter-terrorism laws.

"These inaccuracies have resulted in undermining the integrity of the criminal justice system and public confidence in handling of the test case under anti-terror laws. When I consider the actions of the immigration minister in this case, the only thought that comes to my mind is that he has used an atom bomb to kill a fly," Sinha said.

The Australian health system relies heavily on foreign doctors, particularly in regional and remote areas where Australians don't want to work. About 6,500 foreign doctors come to work in Australia each year, most of them from the Indian subcontinent, Britain and South Africa.

"The health system will collapse without them. After the arrest of Dr. Haneef, a wave of fear swept through the Gold Coast hospital where he worked. Overseas trained doctors from India and the Middle East braced themselves for the rejection and abuse from patients and peers," said Sinha.