Ombudsman statement on COVID-19 risks in immigration detention: Department urged to reduce numbers

PIAC welcomes the statement by the Commonwealth Ombudsman following his investigation into the management of COVID-19 risks in immigration detention, released today.

Staggeringly, the statement reveals that numbers in our overcrowded detention centres have in fact gone up in recent months, despite the clear and consistent recommendations of public health and infectious diseases experts to reduce detainee populations.

Women and men held in crowded environments are already unable to effectively practice social distancing, putting them at an unacceptably high risk of contracting the virus and suffering serious harm.

The Ombudsman’s statement also highlights inconsistency in practices across places of detention and a lack of monitoring and assurance by the Department.

‘It is deeply worrying that the Department continues to ignore public health advice. Not only has the Department failed to reduce the numbers of people in detention centres, they have allowed them to increase. This flies in the face of medical experts and practices in other closed environments,’ said Jane Leibowitz, who leads PIAC’s Asylum Seeker Health Rights Project.

‘The pandemic may be easing, but in crowded detention environments, even a single case could prove catastrophic for detainees, staff and the broader community.’

‘The Government has a duty of care to those it detains. Infectious disease specialists have clearly advised that that the best way to prevent significant transmission is to reduce the number of people in detention. The Ombudsman is now making the same critical recommendation,’ said Jane Leibowitz.

In May, PIAC lodged a complaint with the Ombudsman on behalf of 14 men in onshore detention facilities. The men who 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 complaint called 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 Commonwealth Ombudsman’s public statement today follows inspections of immigration centres in May and June.

‘Despite the measures outlined by the Ombudsman today, our clients tell us that they are still sleeping several people to a room, and using shared facilities such as kitchens and bathrooms,’ said Jane Leibowitz.

‘Without a considerable reduction in the detention population, the public health recommendations simply cannot be met.’

‘The most effective way to reduce the serious health threat to immigration detainees, staff and the community, is to transfer people out of held immigration detention into appropriate community accommodation where possible, as a matter of urgency,’ said Jane Leibowitz.

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

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