The health effects of racism can often go unnoticed but everyday racism can make people sick or even kill them, an alliance of health professionals say.
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20 Feb 2014 - 5:12 PM  UPDATED 20 Feb 2014 - 6:07 PM

A forum in Melbourne has heard how racism in many spheres of Australian life can lead to adverse health outcomes and can have fatal consequenecs.

An alliance of health professionals is lobbying governments to adopt a 2008 World Health Organisation mandate to address the growing problem.  

When Aran Mylvaghnam was 13 years old he spent three months in an immigration detention centre as an unaccompanied minor.

The Tamil refugee had witnessed atrocities in his homeland, including the death of his brother and while he was in detention he became depressed, suicidal and was eventually hospitalised.

"I was very scared, the first day. I was locked in a room and I was crying, shouting," he recalled.

"They eventually let me out of the room. I was calling for my mum, my brothers and sister, my dad."

According to Dr Barri Phatarfod, spokesperson for the group, Doctors For Refugees; Aran's story isn't uncommon.

Addressing a conference of medical and social justice experts in Melbourne, she denounced the politicisation of refugees over their legitimate health needs.

"How they got here and whether they sought asylum legally or whether they didn't seek asylum legally, shouldn't be a determining factor in how we treat them from here," she said.

Professor Dennis McDermott says the issue also touches Indigenous communities.

"What's harder to see is how racist events and how racism in institutions and organisations actually plays out on your health," he said.

"That's why we call it a sleeper issue and it's there."

Questioning Aboriginality and making inappropriate assumptions based on appearence are common complaints, especially from health practictioners and experts say it underscores the need for culturally specific training.

Aran Mylvaghnam now assists other asylum seekers, some of whom battle mental health problems, and says he has no doubts prolonged detention leads to adverse health outcomes.

"Refugees tend to stay a lot longer, naturally they need to get mental health medication to survive in these detention centres," he said.

"Otherwise you're always thinking about commiting suicide."