On 18 October 2021, refugees and asylum seekers detained at Melbourne’s Park Hotel held a protest against their detention at the hotel during a COVID-19 outbreak. The detained decried their shared sleeping quarters, cramped eating and recreation spaces, and the fact that many of them are medically vulnerable. Three positive cases had been confirmed and at least 40 men were awaiting test results.
By 22 October 2021, it was confirmed that nearly one-third of immigration detainees held at the Park Hotel had tested positive for COVID-19. Fifteen of 46 men were infected, one person had been taken to the hospital, 28 had tested negative, and three were awaiting results.
At a Court hearing brought by a refugee – known as FSG20 in Court – requesting orders to allow him to be assessed by paramedics, the Court heard that an ambulance was turned away from the hotel. According to the evidence presented, an ambulance was called by a friend of FSG20 after concerns about his deteriorating health condition. In a statement to the Court, his friend said: “I called the ambulance. They attended the hotel but were not permitted to enter. He was told by the nurse never to call the ambulance again.” The government rejected this and told the court that while several ambulances had been called for detainees, this ambulance or FGS20 had not arrived. Further hearings on the case were scheduled for late October..
According to figures released by the government, vaccination rates among immigration detainees are roughly a quarter as that of the general population. On 6 September, 52 percent of immigration detainees had had at least one dose and 17 percent were fully vaccinated, in contrast to 63.2 percent of Australians with one dose and 38.4 percent fully vaccinated. The Australian Border Force has claimed that all detainees have been offered COVID-19 vaccinations, stating that “the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination program to consenting detainees commenced in early August 2021 and has taken place at all immigration detention facilities across the immigration detention network.”
On the other hand, the Refugee Action Coalition argues that the Australian government has “failed to implement the most basic Covid protocols” at the Park Hotel, stating that the hotel was circulating air-conditioned air between floors with confirmed cases and floors where refugees and asylum seekers are held, while windows were sealed when refugees and asylum seekers were moved into the hotel.
According to information provided during Senate deliberations on 18 October 2021, there appears to be a large disparity in the vaccination rates for refugees and asylum seekers held at Australia offshore centres. On Nauru, 88 percent of the 107 detainees had received a first dose by 6 September 2021 and 84 percent were fully vaccinated. Yet, in Papua New Guinea, where the health system has been overrun by outbreaks, the vaccination rate for the 121 detainees was at just 20 percent for first doses and 11 percent fully vaccinated.
The outbreak within the Park Hotel comes more than a year after more than 1,100 health professionals co-signed a letter to the Home Affairs Minister, calling for all refugees and asylum seekers to be released from immigration detention as “failure to take action to release people seeking asylum and refugees from detention will (…) put them at risk of infection and possibly death” as well as “placing a greater burden on Australian society and the health care system.” (see 2 April and 26 April 2020 Australia updates on this platform).
The Australian government announced on 6 October 2021 that they would stop processing asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea at the end of 2021 and that around 124 men who remained in the country were being given the option to settle in Papua New Guinea, with a pathway to citizenship and financial support. Alternatively, they may request a transfer to Nauru where they would remain in Australia’s offshore processing system. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said that staying in Papua New Guinea would not be a safe option for the refugees due to the country’s worsening COVID-19 outbreak. Yet, a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Home Affairs stated that there was “zero chance of settlement in Australia for those who come illegally by boat.”
- B. Doherty, “A COVID Incubator: Outbreak in Melbourne Refugee Detention Hotel Grows as Vaccination Rate Lags,” The Guardian, 18 October 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/oct/19/a-covid-incubator-outbreak-in-melbourne-refugee-detention-hotel-grows-as-vaccination-rates-lag
- B. Doherty, “Nearly One-Third of Refugees at Melbourne Detention Hotel Test Positive for COVID and One Hospitalised,” The Guardian, 22 October 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/oct/22/nearly-one-third-of-refugees-at-melbourne-detention-hotel-test-positive-for-covid-with-one-hospitalised
- M. Faa, “Australian Government Urged to Act as PNG’s COVID-19 Outbreak Spreads Among Refugees,” ABC News, 20 October 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-10-21/png-refugee-family-covid-calls-for-evacuation/100548240
- M. Faa, “Australia To Stop Processing Asylum Seekers in PNG But Government’s Refugee Policy Unchanged,” ABC News, 6 October 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-10-06/australia-stop-processing-asylum-seekers-in-png-manus/100517926
- The Hon Karen Andrews MP (Minister for Home Affairs), “Joint Media Release with the Hon. Westly Nukundj MP – Finalisation of the Regional Resettlement Arrangement,” 6 October 2021, https://minister.homeaffairs.gov.au/KarenAndrews/Pages/finalisation-of-the-regional-resettlement-arrangement.aspx
- Asylum Seekers and Refugees Protesting Their Detention at Melbourne’s Park Hotel on 18 October 2021, (The Guardian, “A COVID Incubator: Outbreak in Melbourne Refugee Detention Hotel Grows as Vaccination Rate Lags,” The Guardian, 18 October 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/oct/19/a-covid-incubator-outbreak-in-melbourne-refugee-detention-hotel-grows-as-vaccination-rates-lag)