COVID-19 Open Letter

Open Letter to the Australian Government:

Controlling COVID-19 in Immigration Detention and the Community

April 2020

Over 900 academics, doctors, librarians and experts have signed an Open Letter calling on the Australian government, as a matter of urgency, to take immediate measures to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 amongst vulnerable refugees, asylum seekers and other people subject to immigration detention.

Anyone working in a University or as an independent academic researcher, or as a health professional or librarian is invited to sign the Open Letter here.


We, the undersigned, urge the Australian Commonwealth government to take urgent action to contain and avoid sickness and deaths among people detained in immigration detention facilities and the broader Australian community, resulting from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

COVID-19 creates complex challenges for people in immigration detention, the staff responsible for their welfare, as well as those living in the community on bridging visas with limited access to adequate medical support.[1]

As most of these individuals have varying contact with people outside of immigration detention, the risk for those in detention extends to the broader community.

COVID-19 does not discriminate, nor should our response to it.

Failure to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 among people detained in immigration detention facilities will not only expose these groups to unacceptable risk, it will inevitably have a detrimental impact on the Australian community at large.

Urgent action must be taken to mitigate the current public health crisis at every level.

We call on the Government to take urgent measures to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 for people currently held in immigration detention, those living in the community on bridging visas, and those currently held in offshore detention.

Risks to people in immigration detention

Transmission of COVID-19 occurs primarily through respiratory droplets. It is highly contagious, spreading quickly in closed spaces, leading to the Government’s call for ‘social distancing’ as a primary means of slowing the rate of infection.[2] Yet, the Government continues to confine refugees, asylum seekers and others in places of detention impacted by serious overcrowding[3] and inadequate infection control measures which will facilitate transmission of the virus and exacerbate the pandemic in our country.

Public health experts around the world have established that confined sites like detention centres provide ideal conditions for infections to spread rapidly. The Global Detention Project emphasises the possibility of COVID-19 spreading to those being held in detention centres, where conditions are primed for the spread of the disease to vulnerable people with inadequate sanitary provisions and healthcare.[4] This warrants particularly urgent attention after recent reports of an immigration guard at a Brisbane alternate place of detention (APOD) testing positive for COVID-19.[5] 

We note that the British Home Office has begun releasing people from immigration detention for precisely this reason: to stem a potential escalation of this public health crisis.

We also endorse the guidelines recommended by the World Health Organization in its March 15 advice: ‘Preparedness, Prevention and Control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention’. 

The inherent risks of exposure in a close and confined setting are heightened when people are unable to engage in individual-level preventative behaviours, such as regularly washing hands with soap and water, including after touching any common surface due to inadequate access. People in detention are often required to share sleeping quarters (often with four to six people in one room), as well as bathrooms, laundries and areas where food is consumed.[6] Even within the closed confines of immigration centres the population is not static, as people are often transferred into the immigration detention centres at different times, for varying durations. This further magnifies this risk and conflicts with current Government guidelines to control COVID-19.[7]  These concerns also apply to APODs, such as hotel settings, where people are detained in small, confined spaces with limited or no ventilation[8] which are even more likely to facilitate the spread of viruses and disease.

COVID-19 infection is of particular threat for those whose health is already compromised or who have underlying medical conditions, as they are at higher risk of developing serious complications.[9] A high proportion of people currently held in immigration detention present with conditions such as diabetes and upper respiratory infections,[10] which have been linked to a high risk of complications from COVID-19.[11] Several of those who are detained in Australia have been brought from Nauru or Papua New Guinea (PNG) due to health issues, and are therefore already at higher risk of illness. Furthermore, many people in immigration detention have compromised immune systems as a result of inadequate access to medical care over a number of years.[12]

Testing, isolation and treatment are clearly not possible to do within detention settings, where a standard of care ‘commensurate with Australian standards of health’ has consistently not been provided.[13]

Risks to people living in the community on bridging visas

We endorse the position of the Refugee Council of Australia regarding the need to address the particular risks faced by those living in the community on bridging visas.[14] This includes extending the COVID-19 supplementary payments, and access to Medicare, to all people living in the community in Australia.

Risks to people subject to offshore detention and processing

The government must take urgent steps to ensure that the same government guidelines and standards to control COVID-19 in Australia also apply to those held in offshore detention and processing sites. Refugees and asylum seekers currently in Nauru and Papua New Guinea are particularly vulnerable to the risks of transmission of COVID-19 because of their living arrangements, the limits on their ability to take proactive preventive measures to protect their own health, their status as non-citizens, and their limited access to medical care.

We therefore call on the Australian government, as a matter of urgency, to take immediate action to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 amongst people subject to immigration detention, and by extension among those in the wider Australian community by:

  1. Immediately using alternatives to detention to provide those who are currently in immigration detention with appropriate alternative accommodation in the community,[15] and ensuring that they receive the protections recommended by the Refugee Council of Australia for those on visas living in community;
  2. Ensuring that all those who remain in detention are informed in a language they understand about the risks of COVID-19, measures they can take to prevent the spread of infection, the availability of testing, the treatment of suspected or confirmed cases, and their rights;[16]
  3. Enforcing best-practice sanitation measures (including adequate soap and alcohol-based sanitisers) and social distancing techniques in immigration detention to maintain the health and safety of detainees and staff;
  4. Applying enhanced testing procedures in places of immigration detention and ensuring that all staff are appropriately screened, with similar procedures to apply for Nauru and PNG;
  5. Ensuring that all people on bridging visas have access to appropriate medical care commensurate with Australian community standards;
  6. Ensuring asylum seekers and refugees with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 in Nauru and PNG be assessed and treated in accordance with Australian standards and transferred to Australia for medical care.

Signed by:

Academics for Refugees

Doctors for Refugees

Librarians for Refugees

A full list of signatories is available here.