Melbourne, Australia Campaigns in Australia call on the government to release asylum seekers detained in immigration after at least one COVID-19 case was officially confirmed at a facility in Melbourne.
Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, is currently in its sixth closure amid an outbreak of coronavirus caused by the highly contagious Delta variant.
On Saturday, the entire state of Victoria reported 450 new cases. On Friday, at least 299 of the 334 cases reported were from Melbourne and surrounding areas.
Several fighters and asylum seekers told Al Jazeera that at least two guards had tested positive and dozens were presumably placed in quarantine because they had not reported in recent days.
However, the Australian Border Force (ABF) says only one staff member has the disease. The individual is a contracted service provider at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) Broadmeadows Residential Precinct (BRP), and “has no contact with detainees as part of their role,” the ABF told Al Jazeera.
A MITA prisoner, who spoke on condition of anonymity to Al Jazeera, expressed concern about their health and safety, saying that as many as five people live together in some rooms in the facility, which are divided into different areas.
The units in the BRP, with up to four bedrooms attached to a small kitchenette, are quite spacious. In contrast, the rooms in Avon, another complex, accommodate up to six people on bunk beds.
He says that although the ABF provided prisoners with masks and disinfectants, it did not carry out widespread tests for the virus.
“They do not test us for COVID unless we show symptoms,” the detainee said. ‘That means they would not know if it was spreading until many people were sick. It can travel fast. Guards are free to come and go. ”
The private firm, which provides staff to the detention facility, referred Al Jazeera’s questions to the ABF.
The border force said the health and safety of detainees and staff had been a priority and that it had been working with the state health department since the start of the pandemic on ‘strict’ measures to protect COVID-19.
“It is untrue that infection prevention measures in immigration detention facilities were lax or minimal,” the ABF said.
Prisons and detention centers around the world have become notorious as hotspots for COVID-19 infection, and some countries are releasing some to reduce the risk of infection.
The Australian Commission on Human Rights described COVID-19 as a ‘serious threat’ to the 1,492 people detained in Australia’s immigration detention network.
In a report in June, the commission said the government should put those who ‘pose a low security risk in community-based closed detention alternatives’.
It also said that the authorities should improve the physical distance at the detention facilities and pay special attention to the dozens that are considered to be particularly vulnerable to the disease as underlying health conditions.
“They did not commit any crime”
About 239 people are being held in MITA, according to what campaigns have described as ‘overcrowded’ conditions.
The commission added that many of the asylum seekers housed there have health issues,
A source in the facility told Al Jazeera that only half of the people in his complex had received a first dose of vaccine – all in the past week. There are about 60 people in his part of the facility, he said.
Sadaf Ismail, program manager for detention rights at the Asylum Seeker Resource Center, which has clients at MITA, says asylum seekers should be released immediately because social distance was impossible within the facility.
Prisoners “are close to each other … how could they offer this isolation?” she said.
Given the risks, the government should release all asylum seekers completely, she added.
“They did not commit any crime,” she said.
Advocates for asylum seekers say that measures to prevent infection at immigration detention facilities were ineffective throughout the pandemic.
‘Now I’m told we can see guards with masks [and]… they wear gloves occasionally, but it was not regular, ”said Ian Rintoul, spokeswoman for the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC), which is in contact with people in various immigration detention facilities.
However, the ABF said the allegations of lax or minimal measures in detaining immigration were ‘untrue’. It is said that the ABF and the Department of Home Affairs have ‘adopted strict plans and measures for infection control in accordance with relevant health advice’.
“So far, no prisoner has tested positive for COVID-19 in the Immigration Detention Network,” he added without elaborating on the scope of the test program or how many were tested.
The vaccination campaign for asylum seekers began in August, while Australian citizens began receiving vaccines in February.
The MITA detainee said the roll-out at the Melbourne facility only started last week.
“Given the lack of goodwill, total secrecy and hostile behavior of the immigration department, it is frightening to have to trust them,” he said.
‘We are trapped here and know that they do not care much for our well-being …
“Isolation facilities in detention are really basic, like prison … if we were free, we could choose our own independent doctors and discuss our fears.”
Years of mistrust have left the refugees and asylum seekers detained at MITA anxious and skeptical.
The threat of coronavirus exacerbated the situation.