Medical ethics: UK uses data from doctors to find migrants

In this photo taken on March 23, 2018, Farooq, who declined to give his last name poses for a portrait outside a health surgery in London. (AP)
Updated 02 April 2018

Medical ethics: UK uses data from doctors to find migrants

LONDON: To track down people in Britain who may have broken immigration rules, the government is turning to a new and controversial source of information: Doctors.
In letters made public last month, politicians sparred with immigration officials over a data-sharing agreement quietly signed in 2016 that gives the government access to personal information collected by the country’s family doctors. Medical details are excluded.
A parliamentary health committee condemned the situation as “unacceptable,” calling for the agreement to be suspended. But Britain’s immigration department has dismissed those concerns, arguing that such data sharing allows the UK to remove people “who might pose a danger to the public.”
Doctors who work with refugees and asylum seekers have described it as a major breach of medical ethics, saying it isn’t up to physicians to enforce immigration rules.
“We understand the government has a job to do, but going into health records to get patient information is not OK,” said Lucy Jones, director of programs at Doctors of the World UK. “The idea that any patient information is being shared with a government body immediately breaks their trust in a doctor-patient relationship.”
Several leading medical organizations, including the Royal College of General Practitioners, Public Health England and the General Medical Council, have all slammed the data-sharing deal, saying it could worsen the health of vulnerable people and drive disease outbreaks underground, hurting health care for all.
Dalia Omer, a refugee from Sudan who was granted asylum in the UK in February after nearly two years, sought medical help several times while awaiting the government’s decision. She said had she known about the data sharing arrangement, she would not have been as forthcoming.
“If I knew the doctors could share information with the Home Office, I would not tell them everything,” she said, referring to the British department that oversees immigration and security. She said she might even lie about certain details to protect herself.
Dr. Kitty Worthing, a London-based doctor with the group Docs Not Cops, said “the cornerstone of the doctor-patient relationship is confidentiality and this data-sharing is a direct breach of that.” She said when she’s advised people that their personal information could be shared with immigration officials “their reaction is always fear.”
Elsewhere in Europe, many countries have a strict firewall that stops information gathered by health services from being disclosed to other government agencies. Germany’s data protection office said regulations prohibit any blanket sharing of such information. In France, no data obtained by doctors is shared with the Interior Ministry.
Some health experts said it was critical that some types of health care are available to everyone in the UK, regardless of their immigration status.
“With HIV treatment, it makes much more sense to treat everybody with HIV, because treatment lowers the level of virus in your blood so you can’t pass it on,” said Kat Smithson of the National AIDS Trust. “If people are not diagnosed because they’re not accessing health care, they’re not aware they’re living with HIV, which means they’re far more likely to pass it on to somebody else.”
The British government, however, says protecting its borders outweighs those concerns.
“We believe that the release of (patient) information is lawful and proportionate action in pursuit of the effective enforcement of the UK’s immigration policy,” wrote Caroline Noakes, the minister of state for immigration and James O’Shaughnessy, parliamentary undersecretary of state for health, responding to lawmaker’s concerns.


US accuses Hezbollah of storing explosive chemical in Europe

Updated 18 September 2020

US accuses Hezbollah of storing explosive chemical in Europe

  • Ammonium nitrate is a chemical compound commonly used as a fertilizer, but it can be used to make explosives
  • It can also be dangerous in storage, as demonstrated by the huge explosion last month in Beirut

WASHINGTON: Militant group Hezbollah has stored chemicals that can be used to make explosives in several European countries, a senior State Department official said Thursday as he appealed to countries in Europe and elsewhere to impose bans on the organization.
Hezbollah operatives have moved ammonium nitrate from Belgium to France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Switzerland in recent years and are suspected to still be storing the material throughout Europe, said Nathan Sales, the State Department coordinator for counter-terrorism.
Ammonium nitrate is a chemical compound commonly used as a fertilizer, but it can be used to make explosives. It can also be dangerous in storage, as demonstrated by the huge explosion last month in the Lebanese capital of Beirut.
Sales, without offering evidence, said the U.S. believes that Iran-backed Hezbollah has since 2012 transported ammonium nitrate around Europe in first aid kits with cold packs that contain the compound. The United States believes these supplies are still in place throughout Europe, possibly in Greece, Italy and Spain.
“Why would Hezbollah stockpile ammonium nitrate on European soil?" he said. “The answer is clear: Hezbollah put these weapons in place so it could conduct major terrorist attacks whenever it or its masters in Tehran deemed necessary."
Sales made the remarks in an online forum hosted by the American Jewish Committee, which has called upon more countries to ban Hezbollah and its operations.
The US has designated Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization since 1997, but some countries distinguish between the organization's military wing and the political wing.
The EU lists Iran-backed Hezbollah’s military wing as a banned terrorist group, but not its political wing, which has been part of Lebanese governments in recent years. Some individual countries, including Germany and the UK, have outlawed the group in its entirety. Sales called on more countries to do the same.
Hezbollah is a “unitary organization that cannot be subdivided into a military and so-called political wing," he said. Without a full ban, the group can still raise money and recruit operatives. “Hezbollah is one organization," he said. "It is a terrorist organization.”