Home Affairs to face charges of neglect of refugees

March 17, 2022
A recent rally for refugees in Melbourne. Photo: Refugee Action Collective Victoria

A case against the Department of Home Affairs and International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) over the death of an Iraqi refugee held in the Villawood detention centre has been adjourned to May 17, after a mention before a Sydney magistrate on March 15. The man took his own life in 2019.

The prosecution, launched by Comcare under the Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act, alleges that Home Affairs and IHMS neglected his mental health. IHMS is contracted by the federal government to provide health care to detainees.

Comcare, the regulator responsible for health and safety in federal government workplaces, had previously failed to take action over the mistreatment of detained refugees.

Spokesperson for the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) (Victoria) Margaret Sinclair said on March 11 that hearing will be the first time Home Affairs or IHMS “have been called to account in court, under criminal law, for their treatment of an immigration detainee, offshore or onshore”.

Since 2015, members of RAC Victoria have made 75 requests to Comcare to enforce the WHS Act. A number of these related to suicides and attempted suicides. Comcare claimed in each case there had been no breach of the Act.

One example, cited by Sinclair, was the Park Hotel in Melbourne, where refugees brought to Australia from Manus Island and Nauru for medical treatment are imprisoned.

Why did Home Affairs permanently lock the hotel’s windows, exposing detainees to a COVID-19 risk and deprive them of fresh air, she asked? “Why did Home Affairs keep the 45 detainees waiting from March to August 2021 before offering them a COVID-19 vaccination jab?”

She said such maltreatment puts detainees’ health at “grave risk”. Twenty one of the 45 detained refugees contracted the virus. RAC members wrote to Comcare requesting action, but Comcare refused. The hotel windows remain sealed.

Sinclair welcomed Comcare’s action in the Villawood case but said mandatory and indefinite detention of people seeking asylum in Australia must end. “It is detention itself that has devastated the health of these people: they should never have been detained in the first place.”

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