Refugees fear COVID risk in Australian immigration detention

Concerns raised for the health and safety of those held in overcrowded conditions in a Melbourne facility after a guard contracted the virus.

Activists - seen here at a 'Free The Refugees' rally at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre in June 2020 - have been concerned for months over the risk of COVID-19 in detention centres [File: David Crosling/EPA]

Melbourne, Australia – Campaigners in Australia are urging the government to release asylum seekers held in immigration detention after at least one COVID-19 case was officially confirmed at a facility in Melbourne.

Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, is currently in its sixth lockdown amid a coronavirus outbreak driven by the highly infectious Delta variant.

On Saturday, the state of Victoria reported 450 new cases. On Friday, at least 299 of the 334 cases reported were from the state capital, Melbourne, and surrounding areas.

Multiple campaigners and asylum seekers have told Al Jazeera at least two guards have tested positive and dozens more were presumed to be in quarantine because they had not reported for work in recent days.

The Australian Border Force (ABF), however, says only one staff member has been confirmed to have the disease. The individual is a contracted service provider at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) Broadmeadows Residential Precinct (BRP), and “does not have contact with detainees as part of their role”, the ABF told Al Jazeera.

Bunk beds are crammed into a room in the Avon compound, one of several facilities maintained by the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) authority [Courtesy: Refugee Action Coalition]

A MITA detainee, speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, expressed fears for their health and safety, saying that as many as five people were living together in some rooms in the facility, which is divided into several different areas.

The units in the BRP, which have up to four bedrooms attached to a small kitchenette, are fairly spacious. By contrast, the rooms in Avon, another compound, house up to six people on bunk beds.

He says while the ABF has provided detainees with masks and sanitiser, it has not carried out widespread testing for the virus.

“They don’t test us for COVID unless we show symptoms,” the detainee said. “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.”

COVID hotspot

The private firm which provides staff to the detention facility referred Al Jazeera’s questions to the ABF.

The ABF said the health and safety of detainees and staff was a priority and that it had worked with the state health department on “stringent” COVID-19 protection measures since the start of the pandemic.

“It is untrue that infection prevention measures have been lax or minimal within immigration detention facilities,” the ABF said.

Prisons and detention centres around the world have become notorious as hotspots for COVID-19 infection with some countries releasing some of those held to reduce the risk of infection.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has described COVID-19 as a “serious threat” for the 1,492 people held in Australia’s immigration detention network.

In a report in June, the commission said the government should place those who “present a low security risk in community-based alternatives to closed detention”.

It also said authorities should improve physical distancing at the detention facilities and give special attention to the dozens identified as particularly vulnerable to the disease as a result of underlying health conditions.

‘They have not committed any crime’

Some 239 people are being held in MITA, in what campaigners have described as “crowded” conditions.

The AHRC added that many of the asylum seekers housed there have health issues,

A source at the facility told Al Jazeera only half the people at the compound had received the first dose of a vaccine – all in the past week. There are about 60 people in his part of the facility, he said.

Sadaf Ismail, detention rights advocacy programme manager at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, who has clients in MITA, says asylum seekers should be released immediately because social distancing was impossible at the facility.

Detainees “are in close proximity with each other … how would it be possible for them to provide that isolation”, she said.

Given the risks, the government must release all asylum seekers altogether, she added.

“They have not committed any crime,” she said.

Advocates for asylum seekers say infection prevention measures at immigration detention facilities have been ineffective throughout the pandemic.

“I’m told now we may see guards wearing masks [and] … they occasionally wear gloves but that’s not been routine,” said Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC), who is in touch with people at various immigration detention facilities.

The ABF, however, said the allegations of lax or minimal measures at the immigration detention centres were “untrue”. It said the ABF and the Department of Home Affairs had “adopted stringent infection control plans and measures in line with relevant health advice”.

“To date, no detainee has tested positive to COVID-19 in the Immigration Detention Network,” it added without elaborating on the scale of the testing programme or how many had been tested.

The vaccination campaign for asylum seekers began in August, while Australian citizens began receiving vaccines in February.

The MITA detainee said the rollout at the Melbourne facility began last week only.

“Given the lack of goodwill, overall secrecy and hostile behaviour of the Immigration Department, it is terrifying to have to trust them,” he said.

“We are trapped here and know that they do not care much about our welfare.

“Isolation facilities in detention are really basic, like jail … if we were free, we could choose our own independent doctors and could talk through our fears.”

Years of distrust have left the refugees and asylum seekers detained at MITA anxious and sceptical.

The threat of coronavirus has made the situation worse.

Source: Al Jazeera