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Detained refugees risk Covid-19 outbreaks

Australia holds over 1440 refugees in close confines, at risk of Covid-19, in detention centres on the mainland, in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru and Christmas islands. Photo: Pxfuels


There is nothing like a pandemic to make us focus on our very survival but that often comes at the cost of forgetting about those such as refugees and asylum seekers, who have no voices in the community.

Since the Federal Government introduced Operation Sovereign Borders in September 2013, any person attempting to enter Australia by boat was turned back to their country of departure or sent into offshore detention centres, such as Christmas Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG) or Nauru Island.

In September 2016, the Obama administration indicated that it would consider resettling refugees being held in Australia’s offshore detention centres as well as those who had been medically evacuated (aka Medivac) to the mainland.

The election of Donald Trump in November of that year saw this number drastically reduced and left many stranded in a holding pattern with no exit.

Over 1440 detainees unable to social distance
A recent joint press release from Doctors for Refugees and members of the Australian OPCAT Network (Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment) highlighted the dangers that COVID-19 presented to over 1440 refugees currently in detention on the mainland, PNG, Nauru and Christmas Island.

“In the onshore detention centres there are around 1400 people scattered around the country, with Villawood being one of the largest centres with around 450 people,” Dr Barri Phatarfod, Doctors4Refugees said.
“Manus and Nauru have about 250 people and this is an enormous amount of detention for what is a very small problem.

“In Villawood there may be up to 12 bunks in a room and they all share common areas.”

This is in direct contrast to the advice of all Australian health departments which unanimously call for social distancing and access to sanitiser and frequent hand washing.

“In the centres there is a lack of clean water and many people do not have soap which if they want it they have to put a request in writing and wait for 14 days and right now a lot can happen in that time,” Dr Phatarfod said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said at present no detainees had tested positive for COVID-19 and “a range of measures have been introduced and are being continually reviewed to keep detainees and staff informed of preventative measures and personal hygiene standards.”

“We need to think that these may be super-spreader type environments and there is a potential here to reduce that and that is why this question should be revisited,” Terry Slevin, Chief Executive Officer, Public Health Association (PHA) said.

“The PHA has a long history of supporting people in the community who are the most vulnerable and there is no doubt that refugees are in that category.”

Besides the 450 or so refugees in Villawood and five on Christmas Island there are also hundreds of refugees scattered across the country in smaller detention centres, or holed-up in crowded hotels, such the Mantra Bell City in the Melbourne suburb of Preston and Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point Central Hotel – where a Serco employee guarding the refugees has already tested positive to COVID-19.

The Kangaroo Point Hotel is designated an alternative place of detention (APOD) by Border Force and holds about 80 refugees including those granted US visas in 2016.

Like the Mantra it is kept under 24-hour guard, windows are not allowed to be opened and the detainees are in constant contact with guards, cleaners and hotel staff.

“The biggest source of any infection is going to come through the steady stream of people coming and going,” Dr Phatarfod said.

The conditions in PNG are even worse, especially at the Four Mile Hotel in Port Moresby’s East Boroko, which houses around 200 former Manus Islander detainees and has been attacked twice in recent weeks.

PNG has now confirmed two cases of COVID-19 but this is for a nation that has only 500 doctors, 14 ventilators and very few testing kits.

“The Australian Government has put out a travel advisory for every Australian in PNG to leave, but they are going to leave behind the people that they sent there in 2013 and similarly on Nauru,” Ian Rintoul, spokesperson, Refugee Action Coalition said.

Mr Rintoul is particularly concerned about Nauru, which he describes as an “information black hole” and “like PNG where there is really no public health system to speak about.”

It is not known how many ventilators are on Nauru, which means that any detainee contracting the virus would have to be Medivac’ed to Australia, a dangerous situation considering the amount of time flight approvals take and the rapidness in which COVID-19 patients can deteriorate.

Australia has a responsibility
In early April, as the UK released more than 300 people from detention, Greens Member or Newtown, Jenny Leong, wrote a letter to NSW premier Gladys Berijiklean raising serious concerns that people are been detained against the advice of NSW Health.

“If we are being driven by health advice then that needs to be the same for all people of NSW; you can’t make arbitrary distinctions for people based on their visa status or the colour of their passport,” Ms Leong said.

“Community detention is a real option and the idea that we have people at risk in detention centres does not make sense when we have the ability to show compassion and also determine good health outcomes.”

Ian Rintoul added “The Australian Government has the responsibility for these people and they should be put into a safe situation, but these are not safe situations.

One thing we know for sure is that COVID-19 has simply highlighted the fact that after seven years these detainees have still not got a safe and permanent place to stay.

Australia signed the UN agreement OPCAT in 2017.

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