Re-opening Christmas Island is a cruel and ineffective response to the threat of COVID-19 in immigration detention

The Commonwealth Government’s decision to re-open the Christmas Island immigration detention centre, announced yesterday, is a cruel and ineffective response to the growing threat of a COVID-19 outbreak in Australian immigration detention centres.

Recent clusters around aged care facilities in Melbourne have shown that even a single case of COVID-19 in a contained environment like an immigration detention centre could prove catastrophic for detainees, staff, and the broader community.

In a remote environment like Christmas Island, where specialist medical facilities are many hours away by plane, the risk of serious harm or death as a result of COVID-19 infection is compounded.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, medical experts, including the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases, Australian College of Infection Prevention and Control and the Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, have been calling for the urgent transfer of detainees out of confined detention environments.

In May, PIAC lodged a complaint with the Ombudsman on behalf of 14 men in onshore detention facilities. PIAC’s clients are unable to follow public health advice and practice social distancing in crowded, shared facilities and have specific health conditions that increase their risk of serious harm if they were infected with the virus.

Last month, the Commonwealth Ombudsman called for the release of detainees, where appropriate, noting that the number of people held in immigration detention facilities had actually gone up during the pandemic, increasing the risk of transmission, and placing Australia out of step with many countries around the world that have radically reduced their detention populations.

Jane Leibowitz, PIAC’s Asylum Seeker Health Rights Project:

‘In a remote location like Christmas Island, the potential for people to die from the virus is increased by the fact that specialist medical help is many hours away. It is cruel, ineffective and could result in a catastrophic outcome.’

‘The expert advice has not changed: the best way to reduce the serious health threat to immigration detainees, staff and the community posed by COVID-19, is to urgently transfer people who do not pose a security risk out of held immigration detention into appropriate community accommodation. It is deeply concerning that the Government is going to such lengths and expense to act contrary to this advice.’

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

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