The Federal Court on August 10 ordered the federal government to release a 68-year old detainee from a North Melbourne detention facility after it determined he had a high risk of contracting COVID-19.
The landmark decision is the first time that a court has addressed the Commonwealth Government’s duty of care towards people imprisoned in immigration detention during the pandemic.
Justice Bernard Murphy made an interim order to federal Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to free the man, who has multiple health issues and needs protection against the risk of COVID-19 infection, from the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) centre in Broadmeadows.
Murphy advised Dutton, who has sole discretion on where the man will be moved, to advise the man’s lawyers 24 hours before moving him. Dutton has until August 13 to transfer the man to alternative accommodation.
While the final hearing is yet to take place, the court was satisfied the man’s current detention at MITA meant that he was exposed to unsafe levels of risk of contracting COVID-19.
The Court based its ruling on the testimonies of leading infectious disease experts in Victoria who warned that group detention is dangerous for the health of those who are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
Any precautions that have been taken are not enough to guarantee the safety of the detainees. Human rights organisations have called on Dutton to immediately comply with the Court’s decision and not breach his duty of care.
Prior to his abrupt detention late last year, the man had lived for nearly a decade with his son and grandchildren. His family is anxiously awaiting his return home.
Detainees cannot take self-protective measures while they remain in cramped detention centres. Sanmati Verma who is representing the man said: “The Court’s decision makes it clear the Commonwealth is unable to ensure the safety of vulnerable people such as our client in detention. “There is a clear solution to the situation, which has been implemented in the US, UK and Europe, but not in Australia — which is to release vulnerable people into the community where they can be safe.”
Medical experts have long feared an outbreak of COVID-19 in immigration detention. These facilities are creating unacceptable health risks for those detained, the staff and the wider community.
The federal government has ignored medical experts’ call to reduce the number of people held in detention. Activists are hopeful that the Federal Court’s acknowledgment of the seriousness of the risk will lead to others, at higher risk from the coronavirus, also being able to move out of detention.
This crisis is a health crisis, not the security crisis that both major parties would like us to believe. The humane and best solution is to release all refugees into the community.