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COVID-19: Hundreds of asylum seekers in detention begin hunger strike

Asylum seekers' room in the Villawood detention center in Sydney. Source: Supplied

Asylum seekers in immigration detention centres in Sydney and Brisbane have begun a hunger strike to protest their continued confinement amid fears of the spread of COVID-19.

More than 200 detainees in Sydney's Villawood Detention Centre are taking part in the strike, and at least one from the Brisbane detention centre transit accommodation facility.

Villawood detainee Issa Andrews told SBS Arabic24 that the strike came as a "last resort" after more than 250 detainees signed a letter which was sent to Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

In it, they express fear of being infected by the virus and complain about the lack of space in detention.

Mr Andrews said the protesters had a number of demands, including that guards and workers wear greater protective clothes to reduce the possibility of spreading the virus, as well as greater access for detainees to medical care if needed.

He said other demands included that new detainees get tested for the virus upon arrival, and also a request for the quicker processing of immigration applications.

"We communicated with the Australian Border Force for weeks, and they are not responding to us at all," the 44-year-old Jordanian said. 

"We hope the hunger strike will achieve what we are asking for."

Video: Villawood detainees announce the hunger strike on Monday.  

At the Brisbane facility, Sam Ibrahim, 54, began a hunger strike three days ago.

He’s calling for inmates in the centre to be released into community detention.

"There is a high risk of catching coronavirus in the prison since all employees enter without taking any protective measures," he said.

Of the estimated 1400 people held in detention in Australia, many are asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their applications to remain in the county.

Furthermore, among those detained are former inmates of Australia’s offshore centres on Manus Island and Nauru, who were transferred to Australia to receive medical treatment as part of the Medevac law. 

In late March, asylum seekers in three detention centres – Villawood, Yongah Hill and a Mantra Hotel – attempted to draw attention to what they say is a lack of protection and preparation against the coronavirus outbreak.

Detainees being held at the Kangaroo Point Hotel in Brisbane demonstrated over the weekend calling for their release after it was confirmed that a guard employed by contractor Serco tested positive last month.

A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs told SBS Arabic24 "no immigration detention detainees have tested positive to COVID-19".

"A service provider staff member tested positive last month in Brisbane but had not worked in a detention facility for almost two weeks before testing positive.

"All appropriate contact tracing and testing has been done and there have been no further positive cases related to that individual."

The spokesperson added that "infection control plans are in place and plans to manage suspected cases of COVID-19 have been developed and tested". 

"Detainees displaying any COVID-19 symptoms may be quarantined and tested in line with advice from health officials and in accordance with the broader Commonwealth response.  

"A range of measures have been introduced, and are being continually reviewed, to keep detainees and staff informed of preventive measures and personal hygiene standards."

The spokesperson confirmed that in addition to regular daily cleaning, increased cleaning of communal areas, high traffic areas and common touchpoints is occurring.

"The ABF, and service providers, remain focussed on the health and safety of all detainees and staff during this time. We continue to follow the advice of the Department of Health and other health officials."

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