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PAST CASE: Supporting people locked in refugee detention during COVID-19

The Grata Community chipped in so that Mahmoud* could start legal proceedings against Home Affairs Minister Dutton about his duty of care to protect people in detention from the COVID-19 pandemic. The proceedings meant Mahmoud was placed in safer accommodation for the pandemic and others released into community detention. 

Mahmoud had already fled danger in 2013 to seek safety in Australia. He was placed on Manus Island and has recently been medically transferred to Australia. Then when the COVID-19 pandemic hit he was placed in a life threatening situation by the Government. 

Mahmoud is a middle-aged man and has multiple conditions that doctors say place him at a significant level of risk should he contract Covid-19. This means that his chance of survival from Covid-19 is severely reduced. 

At the time two people in the same detention centre as Mahmoud had already been placed in quarantine because of suspicions that they may have Covid-19. Public health advice indicated that the numbers of people locked together and in close proximity would increase the chances of an outbreak. 

On one hand, they were fining people outside of detention for breaches of social distancing rules and at the same time forcing people who are high risk to do the opposite by trapping them in close confinement with others. 

The Australiasian Society for Infections Disease Control, and the Government’s own Department of Health advice said that people locked in refugee detention aring rooms, eating in food halls and having lots of interaction with staff would be at serious risk of contracting and spreading Covid-19, let alone those with serious preexisting physical and mental health conditions would be at the highest level of risk for contracting Covid-19. Other countries like the UK have recognised this and taken steps to release large numbers of people from detention, Australia must do the same. 

Mahmoud was in a dire situation, and with the support of expert refugee lawyers from the Human Rights Law Centre and the generous support of the Grata Community he was able to lodge legal proceedings against Home Affairs Minister Dutton. The proceedings were able to generate the amount of pressure needed to force Minister Dutton to act and they meant that some people were released into the community while others were moved to individual accommodation lowering their possible exposure to Covid-19.

But it’s not over and there is more to be done.

Other people locked in detention centres are in similar situations to Mahmoud. Many have diabetes, hypertension and respiratory conditions that can increase the severity of Covid-19 and the likelihood of death. 

Refugees protest the danger they face due to Covid-19 while trapped in detention

There are still almost 1,400 people sitting in dangerous detention centres at extremely high risk of contracting and spreading Covid-19. These are people who’ve escaped conflict, persecution, war or terror and come to Australia seeking safety in our community. 

The Government is well aware of the life threatening risks for people who are in close confinement and adjourned Parliament to protect politicians from contracting and spreading the virus, but Minister Dutton has not taken steps to protect the men, women and children whose health is also at risk and are under his duty of care. The solution is simple, place people into community detention where they can safely socially isolate and prevent the spread. 

The COVID-19 pandemic placed a disportionate burden of risk on people in places of detention like refugee detention centres and prisons, who cannot safely physically distance themselves from others. Grata is open to case applications that could help people in detention during the pandemic. Case application guidelines and funding applications can be lodged here.  

*Name changed to protect privacy. 

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