Government must reduce numbers in immigration detention to protect from COVID

A new report released today has revealed the Commonwealth Government’s failure to follow public health advice in Australia’s onshore immigration detention centres and called for urgent measures to reduce the risk of a COVID outbreak in facilities.

In welcoming the report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, Jane Leibowitz, PIAC’s Acting Principal Solicitor, has called on the Commonwealth to act without delay to improve COVID safety and prioritise immigration detainees in the vaccine roll-out.

‘The pandemic may be easing, but we have seen how outbreaks in closed environments like aged care facilities can be catastrophic and drive entire cities into lockdown,’ said Jane Leibowitz.

‘PIAC’s group complaint to the Commonwealth Ombudsman on behalf of 14 detained clients in 2020 raised our concerns about these risks. The Commission’s report reveals that many of these have still not been fully addressed. This is deeply troubling, but it is not too late for the Government to do the right thing.’

The Commission’s report confirmed consistent advice from medical and infectious disease experts that the best way to prevent significant transmission is to reduce the number of people in immigration detention. Despite this, the immigration detention population grew by nearly 12% in the first six months of the pandemic.

‘Governments around the world have recognised the risk of COVID outbreaks in closed environments and acted to drastically reduce detention populations. In Australia we’ve done the opposite – ignoring health advice and the 2020 recommendations of the Commonwealth Ombudsman – the very agency charged with oversight of our immigration detention facilities.’

The report makes clear that the use of the Christmas Island detention centre is not a solution. ‘An outbreak on Christmas Island would pose a major risk to detainees, staff and the local population and there just are not the services available to deal with it. It’s long past time that we closed the  Christmas Island detention centre,’ said Ms Leibowitz.

The AHRC report also shines a light on a number of inhumane practices that are not always reasonable, necessary or proportionate to addressing COVID risks. For example, it describes a policy whereby people attending offsite appointments in the community may be forced into isolation for 14 days when they return. This is consistent with the experience of PIAC clients. In many centres, isolation involves conditions that are ‘prison-like, harsh and highly restrictive’.

‘While refusing to do some of the obvious things to reduce risk, the government has, in certain instances, instead opted for harsh and disproportionate measures that risk posing a major barrier to people getting the medical care they need. People should not have to fear solitary confinement for two weeks if they seek medical care,’ said Jane Leibowitz.

‘The Government owes a duty of care to the people it detains. Given the high risk of transmission in closed environments, we call on the Commonwealth to expedite the vaccination of people in immigration detention, and urge them to act immediately to improve COVID safety to protect detainees, staff and the broader community.’

MEDIA CONTACT: Gemma Pearce, PIAC Media and Communications Manager: 0478 739 280.

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