Refugees in Detention COVID-19
Refugees in Detention COVID-19

Refugees in Detention: COVID-19 FAQs

How many people are currently being held in detention centres in Australia?

There are approximately 1,400 people being held within detention facilities across Australia and around 200 people held in Alternative Places of Detention (APODs).

The APODs  are small hotel rooms currently being used to detain about 120 people at Kangaroo Point (Brisbane) and 60 people in the Preston Mantra Hotel (Melbourne). While the average time someone spends in detention is currently 525 days, 25 % of people in detention have been detained for over two years.

 

How is the ASRC helping people in detention?

The ASRC is currently supporting over 300 people through our Detention Rights Advocacy Program and another 50 people living in detention through our Human Rights Law Program (HRLP). Since early April, the ASRC has been advocating for the release of refugees into the community from immigration detention due to the threat of COVID-19 to their safety.

The ASRC is working with organisations and individuals (including people in detention) to advocate for the immediate release of people from immigration detention. Activities so far include:

  • hosting an online rally with over a thousand people participating
  • meeting with MPs directly
  • mobilising hundreds of people to call Minister Tudge to use his discretionary powers to release people from detention
  • supporting community groups across the country to take actions
  • training people to have empowered and meaningful conversations advocating for people seeking asylum through the ASRC’s Breakthrough Conversations workshop

For the past 15 years, the ASRC’s Human Rights Law Program (HRLP) and Detention Rights Advocacy Programs (DRAP) have provided legal assistance and advocacy to refugees and people seeking asylum held in immigration detention in Australia.

This includes assisting those held in the closed immigration detention network, namely:

  • the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA)
  • Villawood Detention Centre, Darwin Detention Centre
  • Yongah Hill Detention Centre
  • Perth Immigration Detention Centre
  • and the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation (BITA)

It also includes assisting those held in Alternative Places of Detention (APODs), including in hotel accommodation such as at the Manta Hotel (Preston, Melbourne) and Kangaroo Point (Brisbane).

 

What is happening with the reopening of Christmas Island and transferring of people between detention centres?

The Government has started moving people from the Western Australia Yongah  Immigration Centre to the newly reopened Christmas Island. This has raised huge concerns due to the lack of medical support on Christmas Island, which had only three doctors and no ventilators according to recent reports.

The medical community have expressed concern with the reopening of Christmas Island. In a statement released by the Australian and & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, they outlined that ‘choosing to return people in immigration detention to Christmas Island has significant and detrimental mental health implications’.

The ASRC is concerned that despite ABF’s public assurances that no refugees would be transferred to Christmas Island, it seems that refugees are amongst those to be transferred. Poor internet on Christmas Island limits all forms of communications, preventing people from connecting to vital support networks of family and access to legal assistance. There is a secondary concern that the refugees in Melbourne might be transferred to Yongah, a remote centre an hour away from Perth. Principal Lawyer and Manager of ASRC’s Human Rights Law Program, Dr Carolyn Graydon explains:

The clear answer to managing COVID-19 risks in overcrowded detention centres is to release people into the community so they can take self-protective measures like everyone else in Victoria and other states. More than half of those detained are refugees or people seeking with no criminal background at all and who present no risk to the community and should be immediately released for their safety and to relieve the overcrowding pressure across the detention network. There is no need for the Department to engage in risky interstate transfers that mix groups of people, moving them ácross the country contrary to state travel restrictions. There is no need to re-open Christmas Island and with it another chapter of isolated, health harming, punishing detention, at further wasteful expense to taxpayers.

 

What about legal action and the recent case where the Federal Court ordered the Minister to release an elderly man from detention due to the threat to his life from COVID-19?

On Monday 10 August, Justice Murphy ordered the Department to cease detaining an elderly man at MITA due to a high risk to his life from COVID-19 due to his advanced age and diabetes. In the first instance, lawyers for the man successfully argued in court with expert evidence from medical professionals that the man’s life was at risk in MITA and that the Minister of Home Affairs had a duty of care to protect the man’s life from COVID-19.

Lawyers and human rights organisations called for him to be released into the community where he can be with his family and protect himself from transmission.

Instead of releasing the man the government is now planning to transfer him to a different detention facility, away from his son and grandchildren who live in Melbourne.

 

What are the conditions like in detention centres?

Risk reduction measures taken by the Government have been inadequate throughout the entire COVID-19 period to date.

Given the inability to physically distance at detention centres and at APODs (Alternative Places of Detention) and the high numbers of rotating staff, the risk of infection entering detention centres and then spreading through detention facilities, has remained very high.

The Government’s policy has been to continue detaining people in immigration detention, despite detention centres being officially identified as high risk COVID-19 settings and the lack of risks to the community of releasing many detainees, especially people seeking asylum and refugees. There has been only a trickle of people released from immigration detention since the COVID-19 outbreak, however these releases have not been connected to managing risks of COVID-19.

Since April, Human rights organisations and medical colleges have repeatedly called for the immediate release of people from detention due to the fear of an outbreak and as a public health measure. Other comparable countries have taken proactive steps and released some detainees as a preventative measure to reduce the risks of infection and spread of the virus in detention centres.

 

Have any extra measures been taken to protect  people in detention during COVID-19?

It has been impossible for detainees to maintain social distancing standards within closed centres and within APODS.

In some APODs, people are forced to live two to three to a room, eat in communal areas and are in their bedroom for 23 hours a day. In closed detention centres, most detainees are in rooms with others, some in rooms with up to six people.

Conditions in detention are crowded with unventilated spaces where they cannot observe physical distancing from each other or the 60-70 guards and service staff they are exposed to on daily rotation.

While the Department has tried to ‘thin out’ the population density in each centre by moving people within centres and between centres within the same state, this has not been a sufficient measure to ensure minimum social distancing standards are maintained.

 

What is happening with the recent confirmed COVID-19 cases in detention?

Two staff members working in APODs (Alternative Places of Detention) managed by the Department of Home Affairs have so far tested positive for COVID-19, one at Kangaroo Point (Brisbane) in March and another on July 8 at the Mantra (Melbourne).

People at detention centres are left feeling exposed, vulnerable and scared. They are forced to share crowded rooms where it is impossible to physically distance and left unable to open their windows so there is little sunlight and no fresh air. It’s immoral, unsafe and irresponsible.

When people test positive for COVID-19 in schools, public housing buildings or businesses, State Governments are able to enforce containment standards such as wide testing, quarantines and hard lockdowns.

The response from Australian Border Force is still limited to once-off deep cleaning despite record second wave cases in Victoria.

Detention facilities are presumably excluded from these critical public health measures, because they are under the federal jurisdiction of Home Affairs.

The Federal Government continues to detain approximately 1,400 people in nine detention centres and various APODs in crowded, unventilated spaces where they cannot observe physical distancing from each other or the 60 – 70 guards and service staff they are exposed to on daily rotation.

 

Are people transferred here from Manus/Nauru receiving appropriate medical care?

Most people are still waiting for the medical care that they desperately need. Out of the 95 people who arrived in Australia between 31 August – 31 December 2019, 73 people are still undergoing medical investigations or awaiting further treatment.

Source: Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs Additional Estimates, 2 March 2020.

 

What is the medical recommendation regarding COVID-19 and detention?

A number of medical bodies have released statements calling for the release of people from immigration detention due to public health fears, including

How do I take action?

 

Other resources

  • ASRC submission opposing proposed legislation to ban mobile phones in detention facilities
  • ASRC submission into the Government’s response to Covid19 including concerns with those in detention facilities
  • ASRC media releases highlighting concerns with conditions in detention