Despite recommendations from infectious disease experts, medical professionals, civil society, and international human rights observers to reduce detainee populations (see 26 April update), the numbers of non-nationals detained in Australia have increased during the pandemic. This is according to the country’s Commonwealth Ombudsman, Michael Manthorpe, who warned, “There is a risk that upward pressure on numbers in detention will continue in the medium term. This will make adherence to CDNA Guidelines harder and increase the risk should COVID-19 virus occur in one of the facilities. … It has become apparent in other residential settings that just one mishap can lead to a serious outbreak in facilities where large numbers of people are housed in close proximity to one another. For example, a person without symptoms could innocently bring the virus into a facility without their knowledge. … All this being so, we consider that it would be highly desirable for fewer people to be held in immigration detention.”
This assessment followed the completion of the Ombudsman’s investigation into the management of Covid-19 risks in Australia’s immigration detention estate. Aside from the rising numbers of persons in detention, he noted – amongst other points – that although screening was generally in place in most facilities, in several centres there was no oversight of persons exiting the premises. The Ombudsman also flagged the failure to implement compound separation in at least one facility – a failure which resulted in detainees from different compounds using the same communal facilities at the same time.
Some positive points, however, were also noted. These included the fact that facility staff had clearly messaged to detainees that they are able to access personal effects and entertainment during periods of medical isolation – an important policy to help alleviate any reluctance amongst detainees to self-report, given fears of isolation during testing.
This investigation was prompted by a complaint lodged by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) in May on behalf of 14 men held in onshore detention facilities. The men were unable to follow public health advice and practice social distancing in overcrowded detention centres, and their complaint called for an urgent inspection of detention sites in order to assess the adequacy of detention conditions during the crisis.
What this investigation did not refer to, however, was the country’s proposed new law that will see mobile phones banned in onshore detention facilities. According to Australia’s Immigration Minister, who described mobiles as an “unacceptable risk,” this ban is necessary to stop the spread of drugs and contraband items in detention centres. Civil society and NGOs have challenged the proposed policy, arguing that phones are a “lifeline” for detainees – particularly due to their role in helping to support persons’ mental health and wellbeing. With visits suspended during the Covid-19 crisis, mobile phones have played an even greater role for many detainees in the past few months, helping to prevent acute isolation.
- Commonwealth Ombudsman, “Statement by the Commonwealth Ombudsman Michael Manthorpe on the Management of COVID-19 Risks in Immigration Detention Facilities,” 1 July 2020, https://www.ombudsman.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0013/111235/1-July-2020-Statement-by-the-Commonwealth-Ombudsman-Michael-Manthorpe-on-the-management-of-COVID-19-risks-in-immigration-detention-facilities.pdf
- Public Interest Advocacy Centre Ltd, “Ombudsman Statement on COVID-19 Risks in Immigration Detention: Department Urged to Reduce Numbers,” 1 July 2020, https://piac.asn.au/2020/07/01/ombudsman-statement-on-covid-19-risks-in-immigration-detention-department-urged-to-reduce-numbers/
- H. Ryan, “Dutton ‘s Bid to Ban Mobile Phones in Immigration Detention Centres Could be Unconstitutional,” The Guardian, 24 June 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jun/25/duttons-bid-to-ban-mobile-phones-in-immigration-detention-centres-could-be-unconstitutional