Previously one of the countries in the world least affected by COVID-19, Australia has been struggling to contain outbreaks of the highly infectious Delta variant across the country over recent months. The States of New South Wales, Victoria and Canberra have all experienced extended periods of lockdown over the past weeks. Immigration detention centres have not been spared, raising serious concerns once again about the conditions for the 1,400 people held in mandatory and sometimes indefinite immigration detention in Australia, including in “alternative places of detention,” such as hotels and hostels.
Concerns at detention centres were heightened when it was confirmed that at least one guard at a center in Melbourne – Australia’s second largest city – had tested positive for COVID-19 on 5 September. The guard is a contracted service provider at Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) Broadmeadows Residential Precinct (BRP). Detainees in the facility expressed fears about their health and safety after confirming that five to six people were expected to share a room in bunk beds. A detainee told Al Jazeera: “They don’t test us for COVID unless we show symptoms. This means they would not actually know if it is spreading until a lot of people are sick. It could travel fast. Guards are free to come and go.”
In a separate incident, seven detainees at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney–one of Australia’s largest detention facilities, which holds 500 people–were reported to be in isolation after a guard at the centre tested positive for COVID-19 on 12 September.
The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has described COVID-19 as a “serious threat” for the 1,492 people held in immigration detention in Australia, raising concerns about a high density of people being held in enclosed, confined spaces where a significant proportion of them have pre-existing health conditions which can worsen the outcomes of contracting COVID-19. In a report in June 2021, the AHRC said the government should “follow expert health advice by placing people who present a low security risk in community-based alternatives to closed detention” as other countries have done with success. The AHRC recommended reducing the numbers being held in immigration detention facilities, improving physical distancing, especially in overcrowded bedrooms, paying special attention to detainees with underlying health conditions, and ensuring that any resort to quarantine must be “reasonable, necessary and proportionate to addressing COVID-19 risks.” People should not be held in “harsh, prison-like” conditions during their quarantine and should have access to necessary support. Vaccines should be readily available for all immigration detainees, without discrimination.
Observers in Australia have been warning for months about the high risks of COVID-19 outbreaks for refugees and asylum seekers being held in detention. They say that mitigation measures in detention centers have been inadequate throughout the pandemic and that the slow implementation of the country’s vaccination campaign has left detainees extremely vulnerable, especially in centres’ unsafe, overcrowded conditions. They urge that asylum seekers should be released immediately as they have not committed a crime and their continued detention in the midst of a pandemic can not be justified. Marie Hapke from the Australian Refugee Action Network said: “Since the beginning of the pandemic the risks of closed detention have been well documented, and experts have called for the release of all those who do not need to be held in detention. There is no justification for continuing to hold refugees in detention – now is the time to release these people into the community. It is only a matter of time before there is a major outbreak in immigration detention centres.”
Observers have noted that while the Australian government has judiciously followed the advice of epidemiologists and health care professionals in its overall management of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has consistently refused to include refugees, asylum seekers and other non-citizens in its national public health response. The government, it is argued, has continued to view this population from a perspective of national security, criminality and border control and the pandemic has reinforced Australia’s regime of mandatory immigration detention. Indeed, unlike other countries in the world where the number of people being held in immigration detention dropped in the months after onset of the pandemic, in Australia the numbers increased by 12 percent in the first six months of the pandemic putting enormous strain on facilities that were already operating close to capacity.
The Australian Border Force has responded to these concerns by confirming that all immigration detainees have full access to medical professionals and the same range of health care services as Australian citizens. “The priority for the Australian Border Force is the health and safety of detainees and staff in immigration detention facilities,” a spokesperson from Australian Border Force said. “To date, no detainee has tested positive to COVID-19.“
- M. Davey, “Australia on Track to Live with COVID from Early 2022, Leading Epidemiologist Says”, The Guardian, 7 September 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/sep/08/australia-on-track-to-live-with-covid-from-early-2022-leading-epidemiologist-says
- Z. Osborne, “Refugees Fear COVID Risk in Australian Immigration Detention,” Al Jazeera, 11 September 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/11/refugees-fear-covid-risk-in-australian-immigration-detention
- L. Carroll, “Villawood Detention Centre Staff Member Tests Positive for COVID,” Sydney Morning Herald, 12 September 2021, https://www.smh.com.au/national/australia-news-live-foreign-airlines-at-risk-of-pulling-out-as-victorian-outbreak-accelerates-20210912-p58qv6.html
- Australian Human Rights Commission, “Management of COVID-19 Risks in Immigration Detention (2021),” 16 June 2021, https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/publications/management-covid-19-risks-immigration-detention
- J. Taylor, “Calls for Asylum Seekers to be Freed from Detention after Melbourne Guard Tests Positive for COVID,” The Guardian, 6 September 2021, https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/publications/management-covid-19-risks-immigration-detention
- Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS), “People must be Immediately Released from Immigration Detention as another Worker Tests Positive for COVID-19,” 13 September 2021, https://www.racs.org.au/news-old/people-must-be-immediately-released-from-immigration-detention-as-another-worker-tests-positive-for-covid-19
- Asylum Seeker Resource Center, “Morrison Government must act urgently to avoid COVID catastrophe in immigration Detention,” Media Release, 3 August, 2021, https://asrc.org.au/2021/08/03/morrison-government-must-act-urgently-to-avoid-covid-catastrophe-in-immigration-detention/
- A. Vogl et al, “COVID-19 and the Relentless Harms of Australia’s Punitive Immigration Detention Regime,” Crime, Media, Culture, 2021 Vol, 17 (1), 43-51, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1741659020946178
- Asylum Seekers Protest Inside the Mantra Hotel in Preston, Melbourne, Australia on 16 May 2020 (Michael Dodge/AAP/PA Images, “COVID-19 Reveals the Inherent Vindictiveness of Migration Detention,” Open Democracy, 26 May 2020, https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/05/26/covid-19-reveals-inherent-vindictiveness-migration-detention)