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Commission urges immediate action on COVID-19 risk to people in immigration detention

Asylum Seekers and Refugees
woman in facemask in detention fence

The Australian Government must act urgently to reduce the number of people in closed immigration detention in response to the ongoing risks posed by COVID-19, according to a new report by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Management of COVID-19 risks in immigration detention recommends new safety measures be introduced to protect people in immigration detention, and the wider community, from the risk of COVID-19. These include significant changes to enable all people held in immigration detention to practise physical distancing.

The report also finds that Christmas Island is unsuitable for ongoing immigration detention, especially in the current pandemic due to its remoteness and limited access to facilities and medical services on the Island. 

“While the UK, Canada and the US have responded to COVID-19 risks by reducing the number of people in closed immigration detention, Australia’s immigration detention population has increased,” said Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow.

“The government should follow expert health advice and release people who present a low security risk into community housing.

“The Commission considers the re-opening of the North West Point detention facility on Christmas Island is not an appropriate solution to address increasing numbers and overcrowding in other immigration detention facilities. The Island is remote, isolated and lacks sophisticated health care facilities, which poses even greater risks during a pandemic.

“The layout of immigration detention facilities, especially the use of small, shared bedrooms, makes it difficult and in some cases impossible for people to keep 1.5 metres apart from each other. This must be urgently addressed as physical distancing is a crucial public health measure to reduce virus transmission.

“Many people in immigration detention have pre-existing health conditions, which make them especially vulnerable to the risks posed by COVID-19. A COVID-19 outbreak in this environment, with such a high proportion of people vulnerable to COVID-19, has the potential to be catastrophic.”

The report finds that some facilities used for quarantine inside immigration detention are harsh and prison like with no or very limited access to natural light, fresh air and outdoor space.

The report also finds that some restrictions put in place to reduce COVID-19 risks, such as controlled movement policies and the use of quarantine in detention facilities, limit the human rights of people affected, without a proportionate public health benefit. Quarantine should be used only when necessary for health reasons. The Commission found examples where people in immigration detention were being quarantined for 14 days, regardless of symptoms, after an offsite appointment in a low-risk part of Australia.

The report makes 20 recommendations to protect the health of people in immigration detention who are significant risk of COVID-19, and to end measures that unnecessarily infringe their human rights.

The Department of Home Affairs has responded to the report’s recommendations and the Department’s response is published alongside the report. The Department agreed with 6 recommendations, agreed in part with 2 recommendations, noted 7 recommendations and disagreed with 5 recommendations.

Management of COVID-19 risks in immigration detention is available to read on the Commission’s website at

For more information or interviews with Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow, contact