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Ethical Considerations in the Management of Asylum Seekers on Hunger Strike

Derrick Silove, MD, FRANZCP; Jackie Curtis, FRANZCP; Catherine Mason, MPH, FRANZCP; Rise Becker, MRPsych
JAMA. 1996;276(5):410-415. doi:10.1001/jama.1996.03540050070026.
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Hunger strikes have confronted physicians with complex ethical dilemmas throughout history. Asylum seekers under threat of forced repatriation have emerged as a new category of hunger strikers, posing novel challenges for management. The management of 3 Cambodian asylum seekers on hunger strike admitted to a hospital in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, posed important ethical dilemmas for the physicians and mental health experts involved in their care. Several factors confounded the task of assessment and decision making, including language and cultural barriers, the patients' past exposure to persecution by authorities, and the complexities of the legal procedures being pursued. Different rules appeared to govern the actions of the hunger strikers, the medical team, and the immigration authorities, creating a "malignant triangle" of mounting confrontation. Recent recommendations for the management of asylum-seeking hunger strikers include the appointment of an external physician of confidence and the writing of a confidential advance directive specifying the hunger striker's wishes about resuscitation in the event of collapse. In addition, we consider the value of constituting an ad hoc ethics committee to advise the responsible physician on points of conflict in managing the hunger strike. The advantages and limitations of these proposals in relation to the particular cultural, historical, and contextual issues relevant to asylum seekers are examined herein.


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