Detention is an infection risk

April 10, 2020
Online protests for refugees. Photo: Refugee Action Coalition/Facebook

COVID-19 is making the medical emergency in detention centres even more dangerous. There is a serious risk of mass infection and for people who are already in the high risk categories, this could be lethal.

The Tamil family from Bileola, who are still being held on Christmas Island, report that their guards are not practising physical isolation, or self isolating on arrival on the island.

Additionally, people in the community on various visas, including refugees, do not have access to Medicare or JobSekeer support.

People are protesting in detention centres and detention hotels, where they have been detained since arriving for medical treatment under the former Medevac law. Actions have been organised inside Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point Hotel — where a guard has tested positive — The Mantra Hotel in Melbourne and, on April 8, at Sydney’s Villawood detention centre, where more than 200 people have begun a hunger strike.

Refugee activists are finding ways to show solidarity during the COVID-19 lockdown, including car convoy actions, postering and social media. On Palm Sunday, April 5, when broad interfaith marches for refugee rights have been organised each year, activists uploaded solidarity messages to YouTube and posted photos of themselves with hand-made signs.

A notable contribution was from the Australian Medical Students Alliance, which mobilised dozens of their members to take part in placard selfies. A common sign was “detention is an infection risk”.

Justice for Refugees Western Australia organised a livestream “rally” which included voices from people in detention and activists. Father Chris Bedding stressed: “We need to ensure that people seeking asylum and refugees are included in the COVID-19 strategy.”

It has enabled those with visas living outside detention to speak anonymously.

One person, who has lived in the community for seven years, said: “All of us have got life-threatening problems that make us escape from our countries and you see here how people are fighting for their own life and the simplest stuff ... like food, each other ... At this time you can imagine normal people, majority people understand the refugees feeling...

“Because our life was threatened we had to escape and escape to some safer countries like Australia ... We are the vulnerable people, we are one group of people who lives in Australia that has almost been forgotten.”

One man speaking from Papua New Guinea, which has reported several confirmed COVID-19 cases, said: “For us this lockdown is not new. It started when we arrived in Australia on Christmas Island. Recent International Border closures leave us with little hope of resettlement until this health situation is finished.

“We are in great fear and at risk of being left abandoned forever in PNG. And adding more stress to this frustrating situation the new problem of coronavius makes it bad to worse...

“All around the world countries are closing down detention centres and release people seeking asylum. But the Australia government keeps detaining innocent, vulnerable people in hotel detention.”

With visiting detention centres and street protests suspended, the refugee movement will have to find new ways of expressing solidarity as the government puts racism and fear-mongering ahead of people’s lives and stopping the spread of the virus.

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