The Commonwealth Ombudsman has called on the Department of Home Affairs to reduce the number of people in Australian onshore detention centres – particularly those detainees with underlying health issues – to effectively achieve social distancing within the facilities.
Yesterday, Wednesday 2 July, the Ombudsman released findings from its investigation into the management of COVID-19 risks, which found detention numbers had increased during the pandemic.
In response to the reports, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) urged the Australian Government to take up the Ombudsman’s recommendation to reduce numbers in the “overcrowded” detention centres.
PIAC’s asylum seeker health rights project lead, Jane Leibowitz, said the women and men in detention centres were already unable to effectively practise social distancing, which put them at an “unacceptably high risk” of contracting the virus.
“It is deeply worrying that the department continues to ignore public health advice,” Ms Leibowitz said.
“Not only has the department failed to reduce the numbers of people in detention centres, they have allowed them to increase.
“This flies in the face of medical experts and practices in other closed environments.
“The pandemic may be easing, but in crowded detention environments, even a single case could prove catastrophic for detainees, staff and the broader community,” she said.
PIAC lodged a complaint with the Ombudsman on behalf of 14 men in onshore detention facilities in May.
Ms Leibowitz said the men who made the complaint were unable to follow the public health advice to practise social distancing in crowded, shared facilities and had specific health conditions that increased their risk of serious harm in the event of an outbreak.
The complaint called for an urgent inspection of immigration detention facilities and alternative places of detention, to examine the conditions and measures taken to mitigate and manage the risks posed by COVID-19 to detainees and staff.
“The government has a duty of care to those it detains,” Ms Leibowitz said.
“Infectious disease specialists have clearly advised that the best way to prevent significant transmission is to reduce the number of people in detention; the Ombudsman is now making the same critical recommendation.
“Despite the measures outlined by the Ombudsman today, our clients tell us that they are still sleeping several people to a room and using shared facilities such as kitchens and bathrooms.
“Without a considerable reduction in the detention population, the public health recommendations simply cannot be met.
“The most effective way to reduce the serious health threat to immigration detainees, staff and the community, is to transfer people out of held immigration detention into appropriate community accommodation where possible, as a matter of urgency,” Ms Leibowitz said.
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