Federal Government must act urgently to avoid COVID-19 catastrophe in immigration detention

Joint statement: PIAC, Human Rights Law Centre, Refugee Advice and Casework Service, National Justice Project, Refugee Legal, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

A coalition of human rights lawyers have today called on the Morrison Government to act urgently to ensure the safety of the women and men held in its care in onshore immigration detention centres.

There are approximately 1,400 people held in detention centres and alternative places of detention throughout Australia. Medical experts – including the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases and the Australasian College for Infection and Prevention Control – have already called for the release of people held in detention to protect against the risks from COVID-19 for people held there, for staff moving in and out of the centres and for the broader community.  

As public health experts urge that physical distancing is essential, the women and men in immigration centres are often sleeping four to six people in a room, eating in crowded food halls, and interacting constantly with staff and other people in the centres. The Commonwealth Department of Health’s own advice states that people in detention are one of several groups most at risk of contracting the virus.

Prime Minister Morrison has heard in an open letter from the men and women detained that they are “sitting ducks for Covid-19”. 

Human rights lawyers have highlighted the Federal Government’s duty of care owed to people held in immigration detention centres and called for urgent action to allow these women and men to return to their families where possible, and otherwise provide safe housing in the community during this crisis.

David Burke, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre:

“Everyone deserves to be safe in this public health crisis. The only way to protect the women and men held in immigration detention is to immediately reduce the number of people trapped inside these crammed centres. The Morrison Government must allow people to return to their families or support them in other safe housing. Failing to act puts lives at risk.” 

Jane Leibowitz, Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s Asylum Seeker Health Rights Project:

“Many asylum seekers in detention are already in poor health and struggle to access the health care and medical treatment they need. The Australian Government has a duty of care to those it detains and must act immediately to get asylum seekers out of overcrowded centres.” 

Sarah Dale, Centre Director and Principal Solicitor, Refugee Advice & Casework Service:

“If the immigration detention environment does not allow people to follow critical medical advice then it becomes a health risk, not only to the people held there but also to staff members and therefore the wider Australian public. It is well documented that any kind of detention facility is at increased risk of COVID-19 infection and we have a duty to protect the people in our care. We must ensure all people can access their rights – irrespective of how far along the protection process they are and especially at the time of a global pandemic.”

Dr Carolyn Graydon, Principal Solicitor and Manager of Human Rights Law Program, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre: 

“We have no oversight or transparency of how people held in detention centres and alternative places of detention are being protected from transmission of COVID19. They are in cramped conditions and it is a huge public health concern.

“The government must move to release people urgently with enough support to survive COVID19.”

David Manne, Executive Director and Principal Solicitor, Refugee Legal:

“Every person in this country deserves to be protected during this public health emergency. This must include the many vulnerable women and men currently held in immigration detention. Health experts continue to highlight the dire risks to these people who are at immediate risk and unable to take the necessary steps to safeguard their health and those of others. Protecting these vulnerable people protects us all. The government must immediately heed the advice of experts to avoid a catastrophe by urgently releasing people from detention into safer places.”

Media contacts:

Michelle Bennett, Communications Director, HRLC: 0419 100 519

Gemma Pearce, Media and Communications Manager, PIAC: 0478 739 280 


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