As COVID-19 cases rise again in areas of Australia – including New South Wales – prompting fresh lockdowns, a new report from the Australian Human Rights Commission has highlighted the serious risks that COVID-19 poses to people in the country’s immigration detention network. Although no immigration detainees have, to-date, tested positive in the country (although several staff members have contracted the virus), the commission urged Australian authorities to adopt various measures to better protect detainees.
Following a review of the collective response to the human rights risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of immigration detention, the commission identified three key areas of concern: detainee population size, difficulties in physical distancing, and restriction of individuals’ rights. At the same time however, it commended several areas, including the government’s indication that the COVID-19 vaccine will be available for immigration detainees.
With regards to the detainee population, the commission criticises the fact that unlike other countries that released immigration detainees at the start of the crisis, Australia instead increased its immigration detainee population during the first year of the pandemic (from 1,373 in March 2020 to 1,527 in February 2021). The commission notes, “This population increase has contributed to capacity pressures throughout Australia’s network of immigration detention facilities and increased the concentration of detainees in compounds at various times throughout 2020.” The commission thus encouraged Australia to follow expert health advice and release people who present a low security risk into community-based alternatives to detention.
Although it recognises the government’s attempts to provide capacity relief by re-opening North West Point Immigration Detention Centre on Christmas Island, the commission argues that the centre is ill-equipped to respond to a COVID outbreak–due to the island’s isolation, and its lack of sophisticated health care facilities. (The facility’s inadequate health care provision was highlighted recently, in the case of the Murugappan family–a young family of four detained on the island since 2019–whose youngest child was transferred to Perth for emergency medical care after being hospitalised with a suspected blood infection.) As such, the commission writes: “As a matter of urgency, the Australian Government should decommission the use of all immigration detention facilities on Christmas Island, and implement more appropriate solutions to reduce the number of people in closed immigration detention.”
The commission also noted the need for authorities to improve detainees’ ability to socially distance, highlighting the fact that people often have less than the recommended four square metres of personal space, and that detainees are often required to sleep in bunk beds in shared rooms. The commission thus urged the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and the Australian Border Force to limit bedroom occupancy levels to ensure distancing of 1.5 metres between persons at all times, the partition of sanitary facilities from living and sleeping spaces, and the provision of at least four square metres per person in multi-occupancy rooms.
Finally, the commission has urged authorities to ensure that measures restricting individuals’ rights–such as freedom of movement–are reasonable, necessary, and proportionate to addressing COVID-19 risks. For example, the commission points to the conditions in which individuals are held when quarantining, highlighting that centres have tended to use their “high care” accommodation units, which are usually used as isolation areas for behavioural management. “Bedrooms in these units are sparse, with hard, fixed furniture, and contain a toilet and shower, with some separated by partitions (but not doors). They have limited natural light, and any windows are tinted so there is no view outside, and they cannot be opened. Bedrooms are generally monitored using closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, but the Commission does not know if the CCTV is used when a person is in quarantine.”
On 28 May 2021, the commission received a formal response from the DHA to the report’s 20 recommendations. While it agreed to six of these recommendations and agreed in part with two, it noted seven and disagreed with five (including the recommendations that detention centres not exceed their operational capacity and that “high care” accommodation units cease being used for quarantine).
- Australian Human Rights Commission, “Management of COVID-19 Risks in Immigration Detention,” 16 June 2021, https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/publications/management-covid-19-risks-immigration-detention
- N. Mackee and M. McInerney, “As Tamil Family Released, Federal Government Urged to Close Christmas Island and Address Pandemic Detention Risks,” 16 June 2021, https://www.croakey.org/as-tamil-family-released-federal-government-urged-to-close-christmas-island-and-address-pandemic-detention-risks/
- Department of Home Affairs, “Department Response,” 28 May 2021, https://humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/homeaffairs_response_covid-19_immigration_detention_2021_0.pdf