For a detainee inside an Australian immigration detention centre, COVID-19 is terrifying

Two asylum seekers have told SBS News they and all other detainees they are housed with are fearful the coronavirus may spread through the asylum seeker population.

Asylum seekers fear the virus could spread among them.

Asylum seekers being held in Brisbane fear the virus could spread among them. Source: Supplied

For 44-year-old refugee Issa Andrwas, the idea of practising social distancing is impossible.

The Jordanian refugee is currently being held in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney along with more than 400 other detainees.

“All the people are terrified for their lives and their safety,” he told SBS News via telephone.

He said the crowded detention centre made keeping the recommended four square metres apart from one another impossible, especially at mealtimes.

Mr Andrwas also said there was a lack of soap and no hand sanitiser available to detainees and complained staff and guards at the centre have not been wearing protective gear or practising good hygiene.

He said he doesn’t believe the government cares about keeping them safe from the virus.

“No one cares, if they care than at least they would provide us with some safety, some masks, soap to wash yourself,” he said.

Australia's immigration detention centres are used to house people who have overstayed visa, breached its conditions or had it cancelled, or have tried to gain entry to Australia by sea. 

Asylum seekers in three detention centres – Villawood, Yongah Hill and a Mantra Hotel – on Wednesday held a protest to draw attention to what they say is a lack of protection and preparation against COVID-19. 

that at a Mantra Hotel in Melbourne, which houses about 66 asylum seekers on one floor, protest signs read, "We do not want to get COVID-19", "We are in danger" and "What is our crime?".

Hakeem and other detainees eat lunch in one confined space.
Hakeem and other detainees eat lunch in one confined space. Source: Supplied

Hakeem Kakar, 27, said it was a similar situation at the Kangaroo Point Hotel in Brisbane, where he and around 80 other asylum seekers were being held after being transferred from Manus Island in Papua New Guinea to Australia under Medevac legislation.

“All of us we scared … we are stuck with each other,” the Afghan asylum seeker told SBS News via telephone.

“The doctors, they are saying 'you need to have three or four metres from each other', we don’t have one centimetre from each other. We are just sitting with each other in the dining room or on the balcony when people are smoking, that’s the only place we have for fresh air.”

At the weekend a guard at the hotel where Mr Kakar is staying .

Mr Kakar said following the test results, none of the detainees have been tested, not even those experiencing fevers or with coughs and sore throats.

“We need to be tested, each of us, because we don’t know who has it. The ABF (Australian Border Force) said we don’t have kits to test everyone.” 

SBS News sent the Department of Home Affairs a series of questions regarding claims about hygiene practices among detention centre staff and asked whether testing kits were available for detainees to be tested. The department did not respond.

Speaking to SBS News earlier in the week, a department spokesperson told SBS News it had introduced a "range of measures" to keep detainees and staff informed of the COVID-19 pandemic and established plans to manage suspected cases.

"The Australian Border Force, with service providers, is very focused on the health and safety of detainees and staff during this time. We continue to work closely with the Department of Health and are following advice from health officials," they said.

If a detainee showed symptoms consistent with the virus, they would be isolated and tested in line with federal health advice, the spokesperson added.

Dr Barri Phatarfod from the advocacy group Doctors for Refugees said the reports of detention centre staff not practicing good hygiene were disturbing.

“The issue is we have several hundred people locked in close confines, they have limited access to the sanitation that our government has mandated, things like hand washing and hand sanitisers,” she said.

“It’s like having one of those cruise ships in every city in Australia.”

Dr Phatarfod said she was calling on the Department of Immigration to test all detainees for the coronavirus and immediately let those with negative tests be temporarily released into community detention. 

“The situation has gone beyond ridiculous, we are now facing a public health crisis. Put them out, even temporarily, while this crisis is unfolding. You do not, from an infectious disease perspective, want to create more potential hosts,” she said.

“The virus doesn’t discriminate on who is here on what visa, or who is a citizen or not,” she added.

Australians must stay at least 1.5 metres away from other people. Indoors, there must be a density of no more than one person per four square metres of floor space.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at 

5 min read
Published 25 March 2020 at 7:14pm
By Jarni Blakkarly