Home Affairs breaching work health and safety laws in immigration detention, lawyers say

A group of Australian lawyers are calling on government workplace regulator Comcare to intervene to stop an outbreak of coronavirus in immigration detention.

Detainees inside the Kangaroo Point Central Hotel in Brisbane.

Detainees inside the Kangaroo Point Central Hotel in Brisbane. Source: AAP

A group of Australian lawyers are calling on the government’s workplace regulator to step in amid reports detainees are struggling to meet social distancing requirements inside immigration detention centres. 

The Australian Lawyers Association on Wednesday said adhering to social distancing rules was “almost impossible” in crowded immigration detention centres, and these facilities were therefore in breach of health and safety laws.

The call for Comcare to intervene comes days after a guard at a Melbourne hotel being used to house asylum seekers tested positive for coronavirus. A detainee at the facility, Mostafa Azimitabar, told SBS News it was impossible to practice social distancing.

“We’ve been concerned for some time about the lack of safety for detainees and staff in detention centres, which of course includes hotels that have been used by the Department of Home Affairs and Border Force,” Australian Lawyers Association spokesperson Greg Barns said.

“Comcare, the government regulator of workplaces, should be taking a very active role in making sure the COVID risk to detainees and staff is minimised, and if that means removing people from those workplaces, then that should be happening.”

Comcare is responsible for workplace health and safety inside Commonwealth workplaces, including detention centres. 

“It has jurisdiction, there is no doubt about that.” Mr Barns said.

In a joint statement earlier this year, the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases and the Australian College of Infection Prevention Control called on the government to consider the release of immigration detainees into community housing or risk an outbreak. 

Labor MP Ged Kearney, whose electorate covers the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne where a guard tested positive, also said the opposition had warned the government about the risk of coronavirus within immigration detention centres.

"We warned the Morrison government about the risk of COVID spreading in places of detention months ago. They could have moved the men into the community to minimise the risk. They did not," she said.

In March, a Serco guard working at a Brisbane hotel that has been turned into a makeshift immigration detention centre also tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, this week, an undisclosed number of employees at Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre are in isolation after visiting the coronavirus hit Crossroads Hotel.

As of March, 1,373 people were in Australian immigration detention, including Alternative Places of Detention (APODs) such as hotels. So far there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among immigration detainees.

The Department of Home Affairs has so far ignored calls to remove people from immigration detention centres during the pandemic, but banned visitors to the facilities during the pandemic.

An Australian Border Force spokesperson said they were focused on preventing the entry of COVID-19 into immigration detention facilities and have implemented a range of preventative measures. "The safety and welfare of our staff and detainees is our number one priority," they said. 

A Comcare spokesperson said they were aware of the issues raised by the Australian Lawyers Association and had undertaken site visits to the facilities. "We continue to monitor these issues and where necessary will undertake further monitoring and compliance activities," they said.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.

Published 15 July 2020 at 4:54pm
By Maani Truu, Essam Al-Ghalib