Asylum seekers being held in Australian immigration facilities have lodged an official complaint with the Commonwealth Ombudsman, saying the conditions in which they are being held could lead to a “catastrophic” coronavirus outbreak among detainees.

The complaint has been filed by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre on behalf of 13 men currently being detained in government facilities, where they say up to five men are being forced to share one room and twelve men are sharing one shower and toilet.

Public Interest Advocacy Centre chief executive Jonathon Hunyor told SBS News an urgent inspection of the facilities is needed.

“We’ve had concerns for some time about conditions in immigration detention which we know are overcrowded and are a real hotspot potentially for the spread of COVID 19,” he said.

“The concerns have been raised by leading infectious diseases and disease infection prevention and control experts and yet the government hasn’t moved to try and reduce the numbers in those centres.”

The 13 asylum seekers come from a number of countries including Bangladesh, Egypt and Iraq and are based in detention facilities across Australia, including at Villawood in Sydney. 

The Department of Health has previously acknowledged that detention facilities pose an increased risk of extensive COVID-19 transmission. 

The complaint said many of the men were suffering from pre-existing medical conditions that put them at greater risk of contracting a severe case of the virus, including diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and cancer.

National Justice Project chief executive George Newhouse said other countries had already started releasing detainees to slow the spread of COVID-19 and urged Australia to follow their lead. 

“Even countries like Iran are releasing tens of thousands of prisoners and detainees as a result of this crisis,” he told SBS News.

“Indonesia has released 30,000, and you’re seeing the opposite in the United States where no action is being taken and prisons are now rife with the virus.”

A protester holds a placard saying 'Welcome Refugees - People just like us' during a demonstration in Brisbane.

A protester holds a placard saying ‘welcome refugees – people just like us’ during a demonstration in Brisbane.


Supporting the complaint was Jennifer Kanis, social justice principal at Maurice Blackburn, who called on home affairs minister Peter Dutton to do everything in his power to stop a coronavirus outbreak inside immigration facilities.

“Peter Dutton has complete power to move these people into community housing, where they will be safer,” she said. 

“He should be taking proactive steps to protect vulnerable individuals and, in turn, protect all Australians. Delay and inaction does not promote or protect the safety of these vulnerable individuals.”

Both the Australian College of Infection Prevention and Control and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists have also called for the number of detainees in immigration detention to be reduced urgently.

The home affairs department has previously said that it is working closely with health officials to keep detainees and staff safe. 

The department has said any detainee showing coronavirus symptoms would be isolated and tested in line with federal government protocols. 

With additional reporting from Cassandra Bain.

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