The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has called on the federal government to implement a number of safety measures to protect people in immigration detention from COVID-19, including urgently reducing the number of people in closed detention facilities.
Among its 20 recommendations detailed in a new report, the AHRC has called on the government to release priority groups from closed immigration detention.
These groups include people at risk of health complications if they contract COVID-19, refugees and asylum seekers who have been transferred from Nauru and PNG for medical assessment or treatment, and those living in dormitory-style accommodation in low-medium security compounds.
“The Department of Home Affairs and relevant ministers should take urgent steps to significantly reduce the number of people in immigration detention facilities by releasing people into community-based alternatives to closed detention, such as community detention, unless an individual assessment identifies security risks that cannot be managed in the community,” the commission recommended.
The government should also decommission the use of all immigration detention facilities on Christmas Island, ‘as a matter of urgency’.
“The commission considers the re-opening of the North West Point detention facility on Christmas Island is not an appropriate solution to address increasing numbers and overcrowding in other immigration detention facilities,” human rights commissioner Edward Santow noted.
“The Island is remote, isolated and lacks sophisticated health care facilities, which poses even greater risks during a pandemic.”
Santow said that unlike in the UK, Canada and the US, Australia’s immigration detention population has increased during the pandemic. He has urged the commonwealth to follow expert health advice and release people who present a low security risk into community housing.
“The layout of immigration detention facilities, especially the use of small, shared bedrooms, makes it difficult and in some cases impossible for people to keep 1.5 metres apart from each other. This must be urgently addressed as physical distancing is a crucial public health measure to reduce virus transmission,” he said.
“Many people in immigration detention have pre-existing health conditions, which make them especially vulnerable to the risks posed by COVID-19. A COVID-19 outbreak in this environment, with such a high proportion of people vulnerable to COVID-19, has the potential to be catastrophic.”
The commission has also raised concerns over the use of ‘controlled movement’ policies within detention centres, which has increased due to COVID-19.
“While controlled movement policies reduce the risks of COVID-19 transmission in facilities by limiting or in some cases preventing the mixing of people accommodated in different compounds, the commission has consistently raised concerns that such policies have a significant impact on living conditions and restrict access to recreational space and facilities for people in detention with adverse impacts on a person’s health and wellbeing,” the report said.
“The impacts of such restrictions are especially concerning when they result in confinement to compounds or facilities with inadequate conditions and access to shared facilities and outdoor space for prolonged periods.”
The AHRC has recommended the Australian Border Force and detention service providers review these policies to ensure only the minimum restrictions necessary to reduce COVID-19 risks are applied, and for the shortest duration possible. Similarly, quarantine should be used only where medically necessary.
Home Affairs has agreed with six of the commission’s recommendations, agreed in part with two of them, and noted seven. The department disagreed with five of the recommendations, including those relating to controlled movement policies, and capacity assessments of each facility.