Main Content

Asylum seekers catch COVID-19 in detention

Asylum seekers catch COVID-19 in detention

ANMF Vic member Bernadette McPhee, and ANMF Vic staff Kathleen Fitzgerald, Tara Nipe and Corinne op’t Hoog at a rally for refugees in October. Photo: David Glanz

ANMF (Vic Branch) remains gravely concerned for the physical and mental health of 46 asylum seekers currently being detained at the Park Hotel in Melbourne.

The Branch became aware on Sunday 17 October that at least three detainees had tested positive to COVID-19, and via Unionists for Refugees, endorsed a call for health care, not detention, for the men. By the time a COVID-safe rally was held outside the hotel a week later – on Saturday 23 October, two days after Victoria’s sixth lockdown officially ended – the number of infections among the detainees had jumped to 19. As of mid-November, the cases numbered 22, or almost half of the men detained in the hotel.

Almost all the asylum seekers in the hotel were brought to Melbourne from offshore detention to receive medical treatment under the Medevac legislation that was passed in February 2019. Many of them have chronic health conditions after spending years in unsafe detention conditions, with little access to timely health care.

ANMF endorses rallies for refugees

‘Refugee supporters have protested for three successive weekends outside the Park Hotel in Carlton, where 46 Medevac refugees are detained behind sealed windows,’ said Unionists for Refugees member and organiser David Glanz on 6 November. ‘The detainees share the same ventilation system and cannot fully isolate.’

ANMF has endorsed these rallies, alongside the Australian Education Union. ‘Human rights are grounded in dignity, equity, fairness and respect for the inherent value of all people,’ Branch Secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick said. ‘These are fundamental values shared by the union movement in general and particularly by ANMF.’

Seeking asylum is not illegal, but these men have effectively been jailed by the Australian Government despite never having been charged with any crimes in Australia. Unlike inmates convicted of criminal offences, the asylum seekers have had no trials, no representation, no option to appeal and no idea of how long their sentence will be. They also have far fewer rights than convicted criminals, including access to health care.

‘The plight of these men is union business, ANMF business, our business,’ said Ms Fitzpatrick. ‘They are subjected to conditions that expose them to the physical and psychological ill effects of prolonged and uncertain detention, and now also to COVID-19 – with scant protection and health care. ANMF has also sought the intervention the State Minister for Health Martin Foley, while recognising that the health of these refugees is a Morrison Government responsibility ’

Small successes

The Unionists for Refugees campaign, organised in association with the Refugee Action Collective, has had some success, Mr Glanz said. ‘Initially, just one nurse was on day shift duty for all detainees, COVID-positive and negative, with doctors available only by telehealth. Under pressure from the campaign, the private health provider International Health and Medical Services is now employing two nurses on days and two on nights.’

The Andrews Government does not have oversight of the arrangements within the hotel, which is managed by the Federal Government via Australian Border Force. Minister Foley has written to his federal counterpart, Greg Hunt, seeking assurances about the men’s safety and wellbeing. ANMF is also seeking clarity on infection prevention measures and healthcare responses provided by the Morrison Government.