People must be immediately released from immigration detention as another worker tests positive for COVID-19

Media Release
13 September 2021

Another worker at an Australian immigration detention centre has tested positive for COVID-19, reinforcing the inadequacy and danger the current immigration regime poses during a pandemic.

On Sunday, September 12, Australian Border Force confirmed reports that a worker at the Villawood detention centre in New South Wales had tested positive for COVID-19.

While people held in Villawood started to receive vaccinations in August 2021 it is unlikely that everyone is fully vaccinated and people have not yet been tested following the reported case.

This follows a similar situation on September 5 when a worker at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) also tested positive for COVID-19.

Health care workers, caseworkers, advocates and lawyers have been warning the Federal Government for over 18 months about the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak in Australia’s immigration detention network.

These warnings have been reinforced by the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases and the Australasian College for Infection Prevention and Control. However, the Government ignored the warnings and has continued to detain nearly 90 refugees and people seeking asylum in extremely dangerous conditions, over 25 of whom are in MITA and Villawood.

Furthermore, refugees and people seeking asylum in detention have still not been fully vaccinated nor are they being tested for COVID-19 in a timely manner after an initial case has been reported.

The Time for a Home alliance of 140 organisations and community networks, has been calling on the Morrison Government to immediately release all refugees and people seeking asylum from immigration detention. This call is supported by the community with a petition in early March 2021 gaining 36,923 signatures.

Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition said: “We are extremely concerned at the lack of transparency regarding possible Covid infection at the Villawood detention centre. It is still not clear how many guards and how many people in immigration detention have been exposed to the guard who is Covid positive. It is also not known how long the guard has been working while he was infectious.”

“There is a high number of people in Villawood who are very vulnerable to serious illness because of their underlying medical conditions. They should be released from immigration detention. This is no time to be playing with people’s lives.”

Jana Favero, Director of Advocacy and Campaigns, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said: “We have known for over a year that Australia’s immigration detention centres are a petri dish for COVID-19. Yet, there are still 90 refugees and people seeking asylum held in detention for no reason and are not receiving anything close to adequate medical care.”

“The Morrison Government has been shockingly vague about what is going on. We need to know who has been exposed to the workers who tested positive for COVID-19; we need to know who has been vaccinated in detention; and we need to know why the Government sat on its hands as numerous experts and the public told them to release refugees from detention.”

David Burke, Legal Director, the Human Rights Law Centre said: “The Morrison Government has been told by experts for more than a year that unnecessarily holding people in immigration risks the health of the people held there, staff and the broader community. Despite these warnings, it has failed to reduce the number of people in detention and provide adequate access to vaccinations. The Government must urgently explain what is happening in these detention centres and how it is going to keep people safe.”

Marie Hapke from the Australian Refugee Action Network said: “Since the beginning of the pandemic the risks of closed detention have been well documented, and experts have called for the release of all those who do not need to be held in detention. There is no justification for continuing to hold refugees in detention – now is the time to release these people into the community.  It is only a matter of time before there is a major outbreak in immigration detention centres.”

Sarah Dale, Principal Solicitor & Centre Director, Refugee Advice & Casework Service (RACS) said: “Villawood has been located within an LGA of concern since the current Delta-strain crisis in NSW, the people within the IDC have been exceptionally vulnerable to this pandemic for months and months.”

“It has been well documented the increased risk for those detained, additional measures should have been implemented given the precarity of the location of the IDC, as well as the incredible vulnerability of those detained; many of whom have significant health and mental health issues.”

“It’s important to note that the Villawood IDC hosts many people who face indefinite and grossly prolonged detention, they’ve been left vulnerable to this pandemic with no ability to adequately protect themselves. It’s been a race in NSW to get our community most at risk vaccinated and protected, what of this community that have been left at such heightened risk for so long?”

Dr Graham Thom, Refugee Coordinator, Amnesty International Australia said: “The Federal Government has ignored warning after warning about over-crowded detention facilities and the risk it continues to pose to refugees in the face of COVID-19. Villawood is at the heart of Sydney’s COVID-19 outbreak, and in the broader community we have huge operations underway to ensure vaccination rates are high, yet the Federal Government has failed to do the same for refugees in detention.”

“Increasing these risks is the complete lack of transparency from the Federal Government who continues to try and avoid any scrutiny. These are issues of health and we need updated information on exposures and vaccination rates, and we needed them yesterday.”


Media contact: Sam Brennan 0428 973 324 or

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