COVID-19 Response, April 2020
- How many people are currently detained in the centre and what is the centre’s maximum capacity?
According to the Refugee Council of Australia, there are approximately 430 individuals currently detained in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (Villawood). 406 of these individuals are men and the remainder are women. As at 2017, the operating capacity of Villawood was 432 with a surge capacity of 480.
- Are people still entering this detention centre? If so, what are the measures taken to prevent contagion and safeguard their right to health? *
As of 24 March 2020 and in response to COVID-19, Australian Border Force indefinitely ceased its visitor programs. This means that no visitors are allowed into Villawood or any other detention centre in Australia. Detainees have also been restricted from leaving detention centres for any ‘excursions … unless absolutely necessary’.
- Have detainees been released from this centre due to COVID-19? If yes, which groups? *
No detainees have been released from this centre or any other detention centre in Australia due to COVID-19. This is despite thegovernment officially advising that ‘people in correctional and detention facilities’ are most at risk of getting COVID-19.
- What information has been provided to detainees in this centre, in which language(s) and through what means? *
The Department of Home Affairs notes that ‘[o]ur Detention Health service provider has conducted public health awareness activities and posted information at sites on hand hygiene and other preventive measures detainees can take.’ It is unclear how this information has been distributed at Villawood or what languages this information has been distributed in.
- What healthcare measures have been taken in response to the virus? Has the number of healthcare workers working inside the centre increased?
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, a decision making committee of the Department of Health, alongside the Communicable Diseases Network Australia have introduced guidelines on managing COVID-19 outbreaks in correctional and detention facilities in Australia. It is unclear whether or how these guidelines have been enacted within Villawood. The levels of personal protective equipment are being monitored, to ensure there are sufficient amounts to handle an outbreak of COVID-19 in any detention centre. As of 24 March 2020, detainees at Villawood reported that many staff were not wearing any personal protective equipment and that they were living in overcrowded conditions.
- What hygiene measures have been taken in response to the virus? *
If detainees show signs of COVID-19, they will be tested and isolateduntil the results come back. It is unclear how this isolation will work in practice in Villawood.
- What measures have been taken to comply with necessary social distancing requirements?
The Department of Home Affairs asserts that if detainees show signs of COVID-19, they will be tested and isolated from other detainees until the results come back. It is unclear what further measures have been put in place to ensure social distancing. Detainees at Villawood havereported that they are unable to adequately social distance or self-isolate due to overcrowded conditions.
- What measures have been taken to ensure that detainees continue to maintain contact with their family and friends in such a difficult time? *
Australian Border Force has provided every detainee, in detention centres across Australia, with a weekly $20 phone credit to enable calls to family and community groups through personal devices. Their website states that ‘visitors are encouraged to continue engaging with detainees through alternate means, including through phone calls, skype or other audio visual tools.’
- Are NGOs, monitors and/or volunteers continuing to enter in detention and meet detainees? If yes, what measures have been put in place to ensure their health protection? If no, what measures have been put in place to ensure that detainees continue to receive the kind of support they used to receive from these groups? *
Legal representatives and consular officials are required to abide by the ‘no visitors’ policy, and have been asked ‘to use alternate means to engage [with detainees] including through phone calls, skype or other audio visual tools.’ In regards to scrutiny bodies, the official position from the Department of Home Affairs is that they ‘are working with the Ombudsman’s Office, the Red Cross and the Australian Human Rights Commission to ensure they can continue their ongoing work across detention facilities, although in a different format.’ This seems to suggest that no physical visits from scrutiny bodies are taking place.
- What measures have been taken to protect vulnerable groups (e.g., victims of gender violence and torture; people facing mental health challenges)?
To date there has been no suggestion by the Australian government or Serco (the private company running Villawood), of any measures that are being taken to protect vulnerable groups within the centre.
- What measures have been taken to protect staff working with detainees? Has there been an increase or decrease in the number of staff since the COVID-19 crisis started?
There is no publicly available information on this.
- What kind of legal measures are individuals and/or organisations pursuing in response to COVID-19? *
The Human Rights Law Centre filed a legal challenge against Minister Peter Dutton and the Department of Home Affairs on 22 April 2020. This challenge has been filed on behalf of a detainee who has underlying health conditions, i.e. asthma, diabetes and a heart condition. The legal centre argues that the government has breached its duty of care in failing to provide the necessary conditions that would allow the detainee to adequately protect himself from COVID-19. They argue that social distancing is not possible in detention. The Australian Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow has called on the Australian government to release immigration detainees into community detention where appropriate. Many advocacy organisationshave publicly expressed similar positions and concerns for the health and safety of detainees. Three detainees engaged in a protest on the roof of Villawood in relation to fears around COVID-19. After a number of days the detainees were arrested by NSW police and transferred to police custody. A detainee at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodationdetention centre also engaged in a similar protest. On 10 April 2020 a car and bike protest was organised outside of the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne, calling for the release of detainees. The Victorian Police fined 26 protesters for breaching social-distancing requirements, and arrested Chris Breen (Refugee Action Coalition) for organising the protest.