The Public Interest Advocacy Centre has today filed a group complaint with the Commonwealth Ombudsman for 13 men in Australian immigration facilities who fear that an outbreak of COVID-19 could prove catastrophic for detainees, staff and the broader community.
The complaint calls for an urgent inspection of immigration detention facilities and alternative places of detention, to examine the adequacy of conditions and measures being taken to mitigate and manage the dangers posed by COVID-19 to detainees and staff.
The men who have made the complaint are unable to follow public health advice and practice social distancing in crowded, shared facilities and have specific health conditions that increase their risk of serious harm in the event of an outbreak in detention.
The Commonwealth Department of Health has already identified that detention facilities are at an increased risk of significant transmission and infection with COVID-19. All of the complainants are living with conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and cancer, which the Department of Health has identified as factors that increase a person’s risk of serious and life-threatening illness from COVID-19.
They are held in close proximity and rely on shared facilities such as kitchens and bathrooms, making social distancing near impossible. Current detention conditions include instances of five men sharing one room and twelve men sharing one toilet and shower.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman, who plays an important oversight and accountability role in Australian immigration detention facilities, has been asked to urgently investigate these complaints.
Pressure is mounting on the Government to uphold its duty of care to those it detains specifically in the context of COVID-19. The Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases, Australian College of Infection Prevention and Control and the Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists have called for urgent action to reduce the number of people in immigration detention to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
Jane Leibowitz, Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s Asylum Seeker Health Rights Project:
‘The Government owes a duty of care to people it detains. The medical advice is clear that in crowded detention environments, the virus can move quickly and aggressively with catastrophic outcomes.’
‘Without urgent action, including transferring people out of held immigration detention into appropriate community accommodation where possible, COVID-19 remains a serious threat to immigration detainees, staff and the community.’
‘The good work that has gone into flattening the curve will be rapidly undone if the risks posed in immigration detention are not dealt with.’
Jennifer Kanis, Social Justice Principal, Maurice Blackburn:
‘People in immigration detention cannot and should not be left behind in cases of national emergency. The Federal Government must do everything in their power to ensure the health and safety of individuals in their care during this challenging time. Peter Dutton has complete power to move these people into community housing where they will be safer. He should be taking proactive steps to protect vulnerable individuals and, in turn, protect all Australians. Delay and inaction does not promote or protect the safety of these vulnerable individuals.’
Sarah Dale, Refugee Advice and Casework Service:
‘The cramped conditions of immigration detention centres do not allow for people to follow the critical medical advice needed, to protect themselves from COVID-19. It has been well documented that these detention facilities pose an increased risk of infection spread and many of the people held there have chronic health issues, leaving them exposed to further risk. We have a duty of care to these people, including those who came to Australia seeking protection and safety. At this time of global pandemic we must ensure that all people in Australia can access their rights, especially our most vulnerable.’
George Newhouse, CEO of the National Justice Project and Adjunct Professor of Law at Macquarie University:
‘Peter Dutton must take his responsibilities seriously. COVID-19 spreads quickly in enclosed spaces so the Minister must take every opportunity to release all immigration detainees that are especially vulnerable to the virus wherever it is appropriate to do so. Other governments like our neighbours in Indonesia have released tens of thousands of prisoners as a result of the COVID-19 crisis – we can do better.’
MEDIA CONTACT: Gemma Pearce, PIAC Media and Communications Manager: 0478 739 280.
UPDATE: An additional detained asylum seeker has joined this complaint. PIAC is now representing 14 asylum seekers in this group complaint to the Commonwealth Ombudsman.