Over the last three weeks, the Australian government has stepped up its response to the COVID-19 crisis to the point that now there are reports that it might have succeeded in flattening our nation’s curve.
However, when it comes to the over 1,400 people it’s holding in onshore immigration detention centres, it’s done nothing to help them take preventative measures. And while they might be in permanent lockdown, their guards – who continue to come and go on a daily basis – certainly aren’t.
These people include long-term offshore detainees from Manus and Nauru, who were flown to Australia under Medevac. Doctors deemed it necessary they come here for treatment due to the severity of their conditions, which make them more vulnerable to the potentially fatal COVID-19.
Life threatening circumstances
Currently, there’s around 70 asylum-seeking detainees being held at the Mantra Hotel in the Melbourne suburb of Preston. They’re unable to practice social distancing due to the way they’re being housed. And they’re not being provided with any protective gear or products.
The Mantra is what’s now referred to as an alternative place of detention (APOD). The guards employed to watch over the detainees aren’t practicing social distancing. And a guard watching over refugee detainees at a similar APOD in Brisbane tested positive for COVID-19 a few weeks back.
Ismail Hussain is a refugee detainee at the Mantra. He’s a 28-year-old Somali national, who first arrived in Australian waters in November 2013 and was held on Manus Island until last November. Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Ismail about the current situation inside the hotel.
Firstly, when we last spoke two weeks ago, you had concerns about being in the Mantra Hotel, as you were being held in cramped circumstances without adequate COVID-19 prevention measures, such as soap, sanitizer, masks, or even enough room to practice social distancing.
Ismail, have any improvements been made to your situation since then?
There’s been no improvements since then. There’s still not enough hand sanitizer provided. So, nothing has improved. I can only say that the situation remains the same, or it’s getting worse.
There were issues around the guards last time we spoke. Some of them had been showing flu-like symptoms. They hadn’t been wearing gloves or masks. And they were coming and going from the hotel on a daily basis.
Has the situation gotten any better, so fears around catching the disease from the guards aren’t as bad?
They have increased the staff. There are now roughly 80 staff every 24 hours. Every 12 hours, they have a shift and there’s around 40 staff in the building. They’re not participating in social distancing. They don’t wear gloves or masks.
There is no one checking them when they’re clocking in and clocking out. Some of them have been showing symptoms of the coronavirus.
There was a night when one of the security guards was coughing. We reported it to the manager who was on duty. We told her that the man was feeling unwell and he shouldn’t be here.
She asked, which staff. And we pointed to him and said that’s him. She saw that he was coughing and sneezing. So, she asked him how he was doing. He said that he had the flu. Then she told us that he just had the flu and there wasn’t anything to worry about.
She also told us that they were short of staff, so they were not able to send him home. Then they gave him a mask to wear while he was on duty.
The department said a few weeks back that every staff member that was not really feeling well or showing the symptoms of coronavirus would not be allowed to work.
But, they didn’t excuse him. The staff who are showing symptoms are still working.
And have you heard anything from the government over the last two weeks?
We haven’t heard anything from them. They’re still lying about our situation. I saw in an article a few days ago that they were saying that so far there’s no case of coronavirus in a detention centre. But, that’s a big lie, because no one checks us.
No one has been tested for coronavirus. They don’t even take our temperature, even weekly, unless we request to see it. They don’t come and check our temperature. No single case of coronavirus has been tested for.
They say that there is no case. But, how do they know if they aren’t doing the testing? It could already be here. We don’t know. Some of the guys are feeling unwell: sneezing, coughing. We don’t know.
These men don’t seem very serious. But, the doctors said that this coronavirus can stay in the person’s body for weeks before they become serious.
So, how are you all holding up in there with this extra concern around potential COVID-19 infections?
Everyone is fearful. We’re very nervous. Most of us have chronic disease and the doctors have said those with chronic disease have to be more careful than other people.
Many of us have diabetes or high blood pressure. I have high blood pressure and diabetes at the same time.
Some of us have asthma and respiratory problems. And they’re more vulnerable than other people. If they contract the virus, it can cause more damage, death or put them in a coma.
We are fearful. We don’t get fresh air. We don’t get sunlight. We can’t really prevent ourselves from the coronavirus, because there’s no way that we can keep social distance from each other.
The security comes to our rooms and brings the food. There is one common area: the coffee room. And most of the time, there’s more than 20 guys attending to have coffee.
There’s no way that we can prevent ourselves from the coronavirus, because we can’t be distanced from each other. And if it came here, it would affect everyone very easily, immediately.
So, we are all fearful of our situation.
Last Friday, a large group of demonstrators risked being fined to protest your situation out the front of the hotel. They were subsequently shut down by police. How did you all feel about these people calling for your release into the community?
We’re really grateful to them for showing that innocent people have been locked up in this situation in this hotel. And that there’s no way that they can take social distance to prevent the coronavirus.
They were showing the people and asking for our release, because we have the same rights as everyone else. We are human beings. We can catch the virus. And as a result, we can die.
They were asking for our release and we are grateful to them. They were really peaceful and were not causing any problems. They stayed in their cars.
And lastly, Ismail, it’s been about three weeks since the Australian government started implementing more extreme measures to deal with COVID-19. Despite this, your circumstances haven’t changed over that time.
How are you expecting this to play out? Do you think the Australian government may show you some compassion now that there’s a pandemic going on?
As you said, over the last three weeks, the government has been putting more measures on how to prevent the coronavirus.
For us as people in detention, we’ve been detained for seven years. The government has spent billions of dollars. There have been doctors and lawyers writing to the government calling for our release.
At this time, when the pandemic is becoming more serious and the government is taking more steps to prevent it, we’re expecting them to show some compassion towards us and to let us free, so we will be able to look after ourselves and prevent the coronavirus from infecting us.
It wouldn’t cost the government anything if they released us into the community. We all have a room offered to us by friends and good people who are supporting us.
If we are in the community, we can look after ourselves. And we will be able to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.
So, basically, you all have somewhere in the community that you can go?
Yes, we all have a room offered to us by friends, and people who support us. They have written support letters to the government and the Department of Home Affairs asking for our release.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.