URGENT call to the Australian Commonwealth: Transfer refugees into the community to stem COVID-19 pr

Doctors for Refugees, the Public Health Association of Australia and members of Australian OPCAT* Network call on the Australian Government to release refugees and asylum seekers into safe, alternative community detention due to the risk of COVID-19 spread within detention facilities. Failure to do so will result in severe health repercussions for people in these centres and the wider Australian public during the current pandemic crisis.

International experiences confirm that the virus thrives in overcrowded, enclosed spaces and countries like the UK have released people from immigration detention for this reason.

The Australian Government has not initiated feasible infection control measures within detention facilities, leaving these areas exposed to potential catastrophic outbreak. There is a constant stream of security and other personnel who travel between the wider community and detention centres which places both groups at risk for outbreak.

With at least one detention guard in Australia already testing positive for COVID-19, there is a significant concern that the centres, which contain hundreds of individuals often in bunks to 12 in a room, will provide a flash point for this pandemic if immediate action is not taken.

While the rest of Australia is ordered to ‘socially distance’ to keep the whole community safe, refugees are being crammed together in detention and hotel rooms with minimal if any access to basic sanitation requirements, being told they need to apply in writing for soap and wait 14 days. They are regularly patted down by security as they walk into and out of rooms and frequently have security and other agents enter their rooms. Common areas are frequently used by multiple people at once. This is an unacceptable breach and is akin to having several cruise ships dotted around the major cities. Inevitably, there will be a breakout of the virus into the community.

Viruses don’t recognize citizenship or visa categories or stop at barbed wire. Australians are infinitely more at risk from hundreds of people in a detention centre than they are from a garden wedding or the cinema.

Australia ratified the UN agreement OPCAT* in 2017. Referring to the current pandemic, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights reinforces that “imprisonment should be a measure of last resort, particularly during this crisis.”

This is a public health emergency and absolute priority needs to be given to stemming infection.

Failure to do so exposes refugees, asylum seekers and the wider Australian community to unnecessary risk against the advice of medical and other experts.


Dr Barri Phatarfod, Doctors for Refugees 0412 090304

Steven Caruana, Australian OPCAT Network 0473 750728

Terry Slevin, Public Health Association of Australia 0419 901599


*Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT)

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