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We're not all in this together, yet

  • 18 June 2020
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.

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