Government inaction puts staff and inmates in immigration detention at risk

A refugee rights protest in Sydney in November. Photo: Refugee Action Coalition, Sydney/Facebook

The federal government is not taking the necessary measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission to inmates and staff at its immigration detention facilities.

The United Nations warns the virus is likely to rage through places of detention. The Department of Health says on its website that people in detention are among those most at risk of getting the virus.

The United States and Britain have released some inmates, and New South Wales passed a law last week to release prisoners nearing the end of their sentence, to reduce the risk of transmission.

The Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases and the Australian College of Infection Prevention and Control said those in immigration detention cannot maintain the physical distancing and isolation measures that Prime Minister Scott Morrison is urging.

The potential scenario is that a staff member may transmit the virus to an inmate. It would then spread quickly among inmates and staff. When the staff leave, they would transmit it through the rest of the community.

The federal government is obliged to comply with the Work Health and Safety Act regarding immigration detention facilities. It is required to proactively and preventively ensure the health and safety of detainees and workers is not put at risk by the design or operation of a detention centre.

Under section 27 of the Act, the decision-makers involved (the Commissioner of Australian Border Force and its Chief Medical Officer) are to advise the secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) and home affairs minister Peter Dutton of the risks posed by COVID-19 to inmates and staff, as well as ways to lessen that risk.

It appears the DIBP is not taking even elementary steps to reduce risk, such as supplying soap, masks and ensuring its staff observe distancing precautions.

Asylum seekers that have been evacuated from Manus Island or Nauru for medical reasons have been told to apply for soap in writing to the Australian Border Force, which will respond in 14 days. These people have been locked up for nine months and have not had medical treatment.

What happens if they get infected?

We note that asylum seekers and refugees, who have been held in some instances for more than seven years, have not been found to be criminals. Even those held in these centres for failing the visa character test because of prior misdemeanours have served their sentences.

For the health of the nation as well as the health of those in immigration detention, Hunter Asylum Seeker Advocacy urges the government to abide by its Workplace Health and Safety obligations and move people out of detention into community settings as quickly as possible.

[Niko Leka is the convenor of Hunter Asylum Seeker Advocacy. This article was first published in the Newcastle Herald. Online actions for refugee rights will be held on Sunday April 5.]

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