Medical experts call for release of refugees and asylum seekers

Refugees in one detention hotel held a protest on April 1, calling for their release. Photo: Manus to Mantra/Facebook.

More than 1100 medical professionals have called on Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton to urgently release people in detention for their own health and that of the community. Many are in the high COVID-19 risk categories.

“Conditions in the detention centres, and even more so, in the hotels being used as Alternate Places of Detention, constitute a very high-risk environment for detainees’ mental and physical health,” the medical professionals stated in a March 24 letter.

“Hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers who were transferred from Manus and Nauru for medical treatment are still being held in closed detention, many without the medical treatment they need. They now face the risk of COVID-19 infection.

"Transmission of COVID-19 in institutions is a significant risk. Detainees are held in relatively crowded conditions, made worse by communal meal and activity arrangements in the hotels and detention centres.”

Already, a guard at a Brisbane apartment block where asylum seekers and refugees are detained has tested positive to COVID-19.

Access to soap has proved difficult. People are being held in close confinement in the same hotels as airline crews, where physical distancing is difficult, if not impossible, to practice. In some cases, four people are being forced to share a single room.

Those holed up in the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne since late March have organised protests, including with signs reading “We don’t want COVID-19”.

Medical experts and the United Nations have called for governments to reduce prison populations and release refugees from detention.

Instead, the federal Coalition government has maintained Border Force, the same draconian border security department that claimed it was following expert medical advice by allowing sick passengers to disembark from the Ruby Princess in Sydney.

Of the COVID-19 cases we know of nationally, the Ruby Princess has been the source of about 10%.

Border Force has consistently rejected calls from medical professionals to release people in detention.

The federal government’s stimulus packages have not included asylum seekers on various visas who live and work in Australia, sometimes for years. Neither are they eligible for Medicare.

Centrelink has been referring those who are not eligible for any support after becoming unemployed to not-for-profit organisations, including the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC).

But ASRC is at breaking point trying to provide food, housing, medical care and legal support to asylum seekers and refugees who have lost their jobs, live in extreme poverty, or are dealing with mental and physical health decline and homelessness.

It is petitioning the government to introduce emergency measures to ensure those on temporary visas can access the new welfare payment and Medicare. Minister for Families and Social Services Anne Ruston has the power to grant social security benefits for the COVID-19 crisis.

COVID-19 does not discriminate and neither should the government.

[Take part in the online Palm Sunday action for refugees by taking a photo of yourself holding a sign and post it to social media on April 5.]

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