Morrison Government must act urgently to avoid COVID catastrophe in immigration detention

Media Release
03 August 2021

Human rights lawyers are calling on the Morrison Government to act urgently to ensure the safety of people held in immigration detention centres around Australia, amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.  

As NSW authorities attempt to manage more than 3,000 active COVID-19 cases, almost 500 people are being detained in a crowded facility at Villawood in COVID-hit south-west Sydney. Approximately 1,000 other people are held in other immigration detention facilities around Australia.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, medical experts have called for the release of people held in detention to protect their health, the staff moving in and out of the centres and the broader community from a widespread outbreak. In June, the Australian Human Rights Commission called on the Morrison Government to reduce the number of people in detention immediately, and to improve conditions to manage the COVID-19 risk more safely.  

Despite these warnings, the Morrison Government is currently holding more people in immigration detention than in March 2020. The Government is also yet to make vaccinations available to detainees. This has created an incomprehensible situation where people who would be vaccinated if they were released into the community, are instead trapped in a high-risk environment unable to access a potentially life-saving vaccine.

Human rights lawyers have highlighted the Federal Government’s duty of care owed to the people held in immigration detention centres. They have called on the Morrison Government to urgently release people into safe housing in the community where they can isolate, and make vaccines available for those who remain.

David Burke, Legal Director of the Human Rights Law Centre:

The Government’s failure to safely release people from immigration detention is risking the health of the people held there, the staff who come in and out every day, and the broader community. After 18 months of experts sounding the alarm, it’s time the Morrison Government listened and urgently let people out of these high risk facilities.

Sarah Dale, Centre Director and Principal Solicitor, Refugee Advice and Casework Service:

We are told that we must maintain safe distance at all times, yet people held in detention centres, like Villawood, continue to be in held close quarters, with multiple staff members coming in and out daily. Many people RACS support are highly vulnerable, their detention without cause; the Government must act now and enable people to live safely within the community, where they can protect their own health and the health of others.

Carolyn Graydon, Principal Solicitor and Manager of Human Rights Law Program, ASRC:

We are aware of people detained in Villawood who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 due to their age and health issues, who are not safe in the crowded detention environment and who have not been provided with even their first vaccine dose, despite these known risks. Release into the community so that our clients can take their own protective measures, is the only responsible decision to address the intrinsic risks of Covid-19 entering, and then rapidly spreading, within detention centres.

David Manne, Executive Director and Principal Solicitor, Refugee Legal:

We know that vulnerable people held in immigration detention are at high risk of infection from COVID-19, and that conditions in detention simply do not comply with basic standards for social distancing and self-isolation – they’re crowded and cramped and unsafe. The government has a clear-cut duty to protect these people from the risk of potentially fatal infection, and should heed the expert medical advice by releasing people into safe accommodation. The government must ensure that these people receive the same protection that everyone deserves in this pandemic; protecting these vulnerable people protects us all.

Lucy Geddes, Asylum Seeker Health Rights Project Lead, Public Interest Advocacy Centre:

The almost 1500 women and men that the Government detains in our name are trapped in crowded, high-risk environments where the highly transmissible Delta strain poses a massive risk. Given transmissibility of the Delta strain, anyone who is not released, must be vaccinated without delay to avert an outbreak that could cause widespread serious illness.

Alison Battison, Director Principal, Human Rights 4 All:

Since the beginning of the COVID outbreak, numbers at Australia’s largest detention centre – Villawood in SW Sydney – have increased by 13.5%.  With the pandemic raging in NSW, the solution is NOT to shuffle people from one overcrowded centre to another.  Locking people up while they go through an administrative process is not logical, necessary or defensible. It also costs $1000 per day. Staying with loved ones costs nothing.

George Newhouse, CEO and Principal Solicitor, National Justice Project: 

The COVID virus is not stopped by fences or walls, and in fact it thrives in places where many people are forced to live in confined spaces, places like immigration detention centres. Before we see a humanitarian crisis unfold in Australia’s detention centres, the Morrison Government must take urgent action to settle and protect people seeking asylum from the virus.

Sanmati Verma, Senior Lawyer, Clothier Anderson:

Australia is the only country in the world where the number of people in detention has increased, rather than decreased, over the pandemic. It is high time for centres to be cleared and for people to be released into the community.

Notes to editor

  • As at 28 September 2020, the Department of Home Affairs had assessed that 247 people in detention were assessed as particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. 
  • According to data published by the Department of Home Affairs, 1486 people were being held in immigration detention facilities at the end of May, up from 1373 in March 2020.
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