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Immigration detainees 'scared and stressed' about catching COVID-19


5 August 2020 at 5:37 pm
Luke Michael
The number of people detained in Australia has increased during the coronavirus pandemic    


Luke Michael | 5 August 2020 at 5:37 pm


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Immigration detainees 'scared and stressed' about catching COVID-19
5 August 2020 at 5:37 pm

The number of people detained in Australia has increased during the coronavirus pandemic    

Refugee advocates fear that a COVID-19 outbreak in Melbourne detention facilities is imminent, prompting renewed calls to urgently release detainees.  

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) released a statement on Tuesday warning that there were similar staffing and close contact conditions in detention facilities that caused lethal outbreaks in aged care. 

It noted there were up to 70 rotating staff working daily across different detention facilities, and said detainees were forced to gather in close contact with each other and with rotating staff in unventilated communal activity rooms and shared accommodation units. 

The ASRC was also critical of the lack of hand sanitiser available to the 340 people detained at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA). 

The hand sanitiser is alcohol-free, despite the Centre for Disease Control recommending that hand sanitisers contain at least 60 per cent alcohol.

Former immigration detention centre inspector Steven Caruana told the ABC this was because alcohol was “considered contraband”.

Nasir, a man detained at MITA, said: “There are only three sanitiser stations accessible in my compound that I am aware of; one in the common mess area, one in the office, and one in the gym.” 

Amira, a woman detained at MITA, said detainees have asked Australian Border Force and detention managers for effective personal hand sanitiser in each of their detention units but have been denied. 

She said authorities also denied their request to stop bringing in sick people from hospital into the centre. 

“I have serious medical conditions and feel a lot of pain, but I have been moved to different units in the centre and share my unit with two other people, with one toilet and bathroom,” Amira said.

“We are all really scared and stressed that we will get COVID-19 because of [the] high number of cases in Victoria. If we can live in the community, we can protect ourselves in hard lock down and not be forced to be so close to so many people.”

Principal lawyer and manager of the human rights law program at the ASRC, Carolyn Graydon, said the federal government has ignored repeated calls, including from peak medical bodies and the Commonwealth Ombudsman, to release people from detention.

She said the numbers of people detained during the pandemic period has actually increased.

“Home Affairs figures released for April and May 2020 showed an increase of 85 detainees throughout the national detention network,” Graydon said.

“This is an alarming situation in an already overcrowded system where detainees are unable to maintain social distancing or hand hygiene due to lack of alcohol-based sanitiser and are mixing with rotating shifts of guards and other staff who are not consistently using PPE.”

Criticism over Christmas Island reopening

Advocates are also alarmed by the federal government’s decision to reopen the Christmas Island detention centre. 

The government said this was needed to house criminals who cannot be deported because of COVID-19 restrictions. 

David Burke, legal director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said everyone deserved to be safe and treated humanely in the middle of a public health crisis.

He called on the government to put people held in immigration detention centres into housing in the community where they can socially distance.

“The government clearly knows people are at risk in their crowded immigration detention centres – it beggars belief that they are going to such extraordinary lengths to avoid a humane and logical solution,” Burke said.

“The Morrison government needs to put politics aside, listen to the medical experts and protect the people currently held in detention, the staff working there, and the community.”

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) also criticised the move.

Jane Leibowitz, from PIAC’s Asylum Seeker Health Rights Project, said the potential for people to die from the virus was increased in a remote location like Christmas Island by the fact that specialist medical help was many hours away. 

“The expert advice has not changed: the best way to reduce the serious health threat to immigration detainees, staff and the community posed by COVID-19, is to urgently transfer people who do not pose a security risk out of held immigration detention into appropriate community accommodation,” Leibowitz said.

“It is deeply concerning that the government is going to such lengths and expense to act contrary to this advice.” 


Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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