Covid-19 and immigration detention

During the pandemic, immigration detention centres have become more crowded. Despite many guards living in Covid-19 hotspots, there are no extra precautions for asylum seekers, no distancing and no access to vaccines. Advocates warn of a superspreading event if the virus gets in. By Sarah Price.

Outside the barbed-wire fence of Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, greater Sydney is in lockdown. We are told to stay home, stay apart, stay safe. Schools and shops and workplaces are mostly empty. The streets are strangely quiet. Sirens are more prominent, as are the calls of birds. Sydney’s silence can be shocking: cities the size of this one aren’t supposed to sound like country towns.

Imasi Yousef is locked inside the detention centre at Villawood. When we speak on the phone this week, Yousef says he is worried: the centre is full. There is no social distancing. No public notices. No gloves or masks. No sanitiser. “Absolutely not. We are like normal … only everything has changed for the worst,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “Thirteen people share two bathrooms. Everyone in the kitchen together, everyone doing activities together.”

Yousef is stateless: not one country on earth accepts him as their citizen. He does not know his own age. The Australian government has held him in detention for more than 10 years. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began Yousef has seen the number of detainees increase at Villawood. “There are too many people…” he says. “Because of Covid they can’t send them back to their country. The detention centre is really packed.” For the first time since being detained at Villawood, Yousef is required to share a bedroom, “bunk over bunk”.

Since the pandemic began, people have been arriving at Villawood directly from prison, Yousef says. “They have drug problem, they need help. They been living 30 or 40 years in Australia. They do not need to be living in detention centre. They need to go to a hospital, to mental help … very angry people. They finish their sentence and don’t know they will end up in detention centre. It is very challenging.

“I am really worried … if the virus comes in here they can torture us more. We are locked up – many people can get it because we are living together. I am scared … if something happened I can’t quarantine in my room because I am sharing a room. I am living in fear. It is like trauma. I want a room so I can sleep, read some books. They took everything from me. I have not been sleeping. I don’t think properly. I don’t know what is important anymore. I am numb. I don’t feel anything. I am tortured. I am broken. I missed the best of my life.

“The guy in my room come from prison – I never been to prison. I go to Border Force and they say, ‘You know the rules: it is full and we can do nothing.’ I go to Serco, they tell me to go to Border Force. I go to Border Force and they tell me to go to medical. Everyone play a game like chess. They pass you around like a soccer ball.”

He continues: “The guards are wearing masks. I speak to many guards and most of them are against the vaccine … I am telling the truth.” “They say to us, ‘We will protect you’, but we still living in fear. For me, I have nothing to do. I watch the news. The government tell people you have to quarantine, you have to not go out, then every day they bring new people.”

At a meeting last week with Border Force, the centre management company Serco and healthcare provider International Health and Medical Services, Yousef was told there was no vaccine for detainees. “Maybe next year, maybe not,” he says. “They are working with Border Force and NSW Health. There is still no vaccine.”

Yousef says people are scared they will be “locked up even more” if the virus enters the centre. “They say to us, ‘We will protect you’, but we still living in fear. For me, I have nothing to do. I watch the news. The government tell people you have to quarantine, you have to not go out, then every day they bring new people. We are watching the news every day … it is something we can’t escape.”

Questions from The Saturday Paper about supply of vaccines for guards and detainees in immigration detention were bounced from management at Serco to the Department of Home Affairs and on to Australian Border Force. The final response from Australian Border Force stated that all staff working in detention facilities are eligible for vaccination under phase 1b of Australia’s vaccine rollout. This is dependent on vaccine supply and the consent of individuals. No details were given on how many, if any, staff had been vaccinated. Detainees will be offered Covid-19 vaccinations in a whole facility approach. No time frame was provided.

Last year, security guards working at Villawood were forced into self-quarantine after visiting the Crossroads Hotel in Casula, which was linked to 65 positive Covid-19 cases. Many guards at the centre live in suburbs where the recent outbreak is worst. Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition tells The Saturday Paper that, “Particularly with Sydney we are really quite concerned. We have already been through this twice before when the Serco guards were caught up in the Crossroads Hotel incident. It was the same thing then … Serco guards tend to be casual workers and have more than one job. They tend to come from Western Sydney… All the things that have emerged as issues have not been addressed at all.”

After speaking this week with detainees in Villawood, Rintoul says the feeling is one of resignation. He says that even since the recent outbreak of the Delta strain in Villawood’s neighbouring suburbs, procedures and safeguards at the centre have not changed. “There is nothing: not increased PPE, not increased support. Last time they raised it there were serious protests over Covid … people were quite badly punished for demanding release. While there has not been that kind of agitation this time, they are anxious but resigned: they know they’re not a priority.”

He continues: “You have people inside who are not just vulnerable because of the crowded enclosed environment in which they exist, but constantly vulnerable to the comings and goings of the guards. There have been appeals from medical authorities for people to be released … You’ve got people with very vulnerable health conditions inside. There is no particular reason for them to be there in general – and even more compelling reasons for them to be released at the moment.”

Last month, the Australian Human Rights Commission released a report into the management of Covid-19 risks in immigration detention. The commission found significant numbers of people in immigration detention have pre-existing health conditions and urged immediate action. It issued 20 recommendations to the federal government, such as allowing people to practise physical distancing and reducing the number of detainees in immigration detention by releasing people into the community. The report showed that Canada, Britain and the United States had responded to Covid-19 risks by reducing the number of people in immigration detention. Australia’s population in immigration detention increased over a similar time period. In its response to the report, the Department of Home Affairs agreed with six recommendations, agreed in part with two recommendations, noted seven recommendations, and disagreed with five.

Speaking anonymously to The Saturday Paper, refugee advocates who support detainees at Villawood say they are increasingly concerned the virus will get into the centre, potentially causing a superspreading event. It is not just detainees at risk, they say – it is the families of the people who work there, and potentially the rest of the state. The advocates want answers. How many staff are vaccinated? When will detainees be vaccinated? Are there any plans to release detainees into the community to keep them safe? Nobody will give them answers. No one is prepared to say.

An advocate who has visited detainees for several years says the tightening of rules and the length of time people are detained is causing severe depression. He used to take home-cooked food and fresh fruit for detainees. They played board games, shared tea, even a hug. But things have become harder over time, he says. New restrictions were enforced. Then Covid-19 arrived and Villawood was closed to visitors.

This advocate believes the current outbreak of the Delta strain in Sydney is exacerbating the mental health issues of detainees at Villawood.

“During the last outbreak they were finding it really upsetting. So many people were on medication. Their mental health is not good … Covid-19 – the risk of getting sick – makes them even more frightened. It is tension on top of tension. Every time they watch the television they are getting more frightened. They are watching television knowing the outbreak is happening in south-west Sydney, and that the guards come from there. They are locked up … they live in close quarters. They have no control over how protected they are.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 17, 2021 as “‘I am tortured’”.

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