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We're not all in this together, yet



This Refugee Week, many asylum seekers and refugees are struggling to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are trapped in immigration detention centres across the country in cramped and overcrowded conditions that make physical distancing impossible. Others are living in our community on temporary visas or no visas at all, struggling to make ends meet.

Woman sitting on couch with head leaning on crossed arms (bymuratdeniz/Getty images)

Despite what we’re told, we’re not ‘all in this together’. But we know that the effectiveness of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic depends on all of us doing our part to flatten the curve. So when we leave out some, we inevitably endanger the health of everyone.

There are over 1300 people locked in immigration detention facilities across the country. They sleep in dorm rooms with bunk beds, queue for breakfast, lunch and dinner then eat side-by-side in crowded canteens. They share toilets and showers and are forced to ration limited supplies of soap and hand sanitiser. Physical distancing and self-isolation are an impossibility. Inside detention the rules are different. And they are dangerous.

Many of those who are detained have health conditions that place them at high risk of severe complications from COVID-19.

Abdul* has Type 1 diabetes and hypertension. He is scared that after fleeing persecution from a Middle Eastern country as a refugee he will contract the virus in an Australian detention centre. ‘I am very worried,’ he says. ‘I’m not going to the communal areas because of the crowd and many people, to be honest, as I’m scared of getting exposed.’

The message from people in detention is loud and clear: ‘We are not safe in this place’.


'This is not about challenging the immigration system. This is a public health emergency and at the forefront of our response must be the basic principle that the health of one affects the health of all.'


It’s a view shared by medical experts. The Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases and the Australian College of Infection Prevention and Control — along with over 1100 medical professionals — have consistently advised the government that immigration detention centres are high-risk environments for COVID-19 which places people at greater risk of infection and possible death.

Inevitably this also risks placing a greater burden on the health system and the wider community.

It is not hard to imagine the consequences of a COVID-19 breakout in one or more detention centres. Think of the cruiseliner Ruby Princess. Think of the cases in nursing homes. Think of just how much careful consideration is going into the phased reduction of isolation measures. Australia has managed the crisis well so far. We do not need an explosive cluster in a high-risk detention centre. The impact would ricochet far beyond its confines.  

But it’s not just people in detention who are suffering.

In the community, many people on temporary visas, bridging visas or no visas at all are struggling to survive. Without access to Medicare, they face significant barriers in getting tested and treated. Many cannot afford to see a doctor, compromising their overall health and increasing the risk of an outbreak. 

For these women and men and their children, there is no safety net. They are denied access to the JobSeeker or JobKeeper schemes. Many have lost their jobs and only income due to COVID-19. The situation is becoming more desperate by the day as many people face the prospect of destitution.

Nazim* has been on a bridging visa for over three years. He worked as a barista in a local café, but lost his job in March when the café was forced to close. ‘Being in this limbo — waiting, uncertainty — we are used to this. I thought I am strong enough to handle this, but actually I am not’ he says. ‘The community really feel for us. They are helping us. It is heartbreaking to not see that support from the government. This is our home. I cannot go anywhere else. It’s hard to see that we have been left behind’.  

And people like Nazim face the added challenge of attempting to simultaneously navigate a complex immigration system. Something made all the more difficult without healthcare or a basic income.

In an environment in which our individual health is dependent on our collective health, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. Even now, as the numbers of new cases fluctuates across the country, we are told that we cannot return to business as usual and there remains the very real risk of new clusters of infections. So why is there a blindspot when it comes to temporary visa holders?

Globally, there has been a paradigm shift in the way that we live and work. Governments are responding accordingly with paradigm shifts in policy — Australia included. And underpinning this policy is the principle of shared responsibility.

Yet there is a stark exception. A categorical failure to meet the needs of all people. The result is an inequitable response that excludes some of the most vulnerable, putting not only them but our whole community at grave risk. The virus does not discriminate, so we cannot afford to discriminate in our response.

This is not about challenging the immigration system. This is a public health emergency and at the forefront of our response must be the basic principle that the health of one affects the health of all.

There are clear steps that must be taken. Release the women and men in immigration detention into safer accommodation. Provide universal access to medical treatment and Medicare. Apply the COVID-19 financial safety net, regardless of visa status. Protect rights through fairness and flexibility in the immigration system to ensure that no-one is disadvantaged due to the impact of COVID-19.

It is only by taking these steps that we can truly say: we’re all in this together.



David Manne is Executive Director and Principal Solicitor of Refugee Legal. Laura John is a Solicitor at Refugee Legal.

*names have been changed to protect identity

Main image: Woman sitting on couch with head leaning on crossed arms (bymuratdeniz/Getty images)

Topic tags: David Manne, Laura John, COVID-19, auspol, Refugee Week



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Existing comments

Thanks for a very well written, cogent reminder to us all of an easily forgotten community of people who deserve better. ‘All Lives Matter’. The moderator cautions us that ‘comments’ made about articles should be ‘on topic and respectful’. In my view that caution should also apply to cartoons. I for one find the accompanying cartoon offensive and disrespectful to Australia. No country or person that I’m aware of, including the self-righteous cartoonist, is without faults. I would be interested to hear from the cartoonist which country/countries he/she would nominate as an example that Australia should imitate. While the activists are busy trashing everything in sight, I think that cartoon should be removed.

Brian b | 17 June 2020  

Thank you, David and Laura. The selective discrimination and callous disregard for vulnerable and marginalised people still pervading many sectors, not just government, is appalling and shameful.

Kevin Liston | 18 June 2020  

It is difficult to describe the difference between justice and mercy as mercy cannot be injustice. But, generally speaking, the common law of judge-made rules tries not to upset the present day situations of people who have incurred obligations and responsibilities in good faith even though the point of origin which later enabled those decisions to be made was not based on legality. Legislation tends to follow what the common law says because common law is the good sense of the community working things out for themselves. It might be plausible to analogise Australian asylum claimants, especially those on bridging visas in the community, to the US DACAs or ‘Dreamers’, children brought illegally into the US many years ago but now gainfully employed and supposedly contributing US$60 billion annually in taxes. If the cordon holds, the principle of amnesty or jubilee could be applied to ‘bridgers’ in the community or, failing that, a ‘Dreamer’ process in which a path to citizenship could open upon demonstrating several years of proved good behaviour. This might even be extended to those in detention if this is empirically shown not to impair the just right of a nation against trespass upon its territorial integrity.

roy chen yee | 18 June 2020  

Whilst I wholly support the values of the writers of this article and have been involved with supporting refugee actions in the past, I believe that the reason that we can't bring along the majority of support to improve refugees lives is mainly due to "compassion fatigue". I don't have to look very hard to see reasons why compassion is in such short supply in Australia today. In my patch of ground that I inhabit the world seems rife with dysfunction. Mental illness is rife, alcohol and drug abuse are day to day realities, and generational disadvantage resulting in pockets of criminality relating to postcodes, see Jesuit studies on postcodes and criminal incarceration for the facts- and now enormous increases in unemployment that have always been at high levels but have been tolerated by all. As a society we are being overwhelmed by the wholesale breakdown of the fabric of society, its not only me that thinks this but I refer you to Hugh Mackay's "The state of the nation starts in your street" you will find facts and statistics that corolate to my experience, the article was written in 2017. We must improve the lot of all Australians and also those refugeees and asylum seekers who need our protection but maybe we need to galvanise support and compassion by starting in our streets. How do you as a society welcome others to your shores when there are high levels of dysfunction?

Roz | 19 June 2020  

Thank you Laura and David for your timely, well-argued and compassionate article. For far too long, Australian politicians of the LNP Coalition and the ALP have pursued punitive and inhumane polities towards asylum seekers to demonstrate that they are tough on border control. I agree with the notion that all lives matter. And if we truly believe this all asylum seekers and those imprisoned for minor offences should be released detention. This should be the case whether it be detention centres or prisons. After all, they are likely to be sources of COVID-19 and it is very difficult for detainees to maintain social distancing. There is an Australian citizen who is facing similar problems in Belmarsh Prison on the UK and the Australian government does nothing about protecting his human rights either. I refer of course to Julian Assange whose only crime was to reveal world leaders responsible for corruption and crimes against humanity. And our leaders are also very quiet about the human rights of the West Papuans - citizens of one of our closest neighbours - as they face genocide and sickening human rights abuses at the hands of the Indonesian military.Following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has rightly led to the demand that Black Lives Matter. This is also true of the lives of asylum seekers, West Papuans and Julian Assange. All Lives Matter! And Human Rights Matter too!

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 19 June 2020  

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