Refugee groups have reacted angrily to news that a guard at a Melbourne hotel housing asylum seekers has contracted COVID-19, saying their warnings about virus issues in the accommodation have been ignored.
A staff member at the Mantra Bell City complex in Preston has tested positive for the virus.
Several dozen refugees are being held at the hotel, after being medically evacuated to Australian from Manus Island and Nauru.
Occupants and refugee advocates have warned for months about the risk of COVID spread at the hotel, claiming physical distancing is difficult in the complex and the occupants are not being provided appropriate medical care.
The Department of Home Affairs said the man, believed to be a guard, was diagnosed with COVID on July 8. He had not worked at the hotel since July 4, before he had developed symptoms.
Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton said on Monday the refugees were a “significantly vulnerable population” and there had been “a significant clean of that facility.”
The infected staff member had limited interaction with detainees, and the risk to occupants has been deemed low by Victorian health authorities. But refugee groups worry the virus might spread quickly within the building.
“Workers in hazmat suits have been cleaning the third floor where refugees are imprisoned but refugees themselves still do not have adequate [personal protective equipment],” said Chris Breen, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Collective.
“This positive case confirms all the warnings from refugee advocates about the risk of COVID-19 to refugees held in detention, who are unable to physically distance or protect themselves from the virus.”
Mostafa Azimitabar, a refugee housed at the Mantra after being transported from Manus Island, said detainees were stressed.
A staff member MAPOD, Mantra hotel , tested positive to COVID 19, the staff member last work was 8 days ago that what ABF, IHMS and Serco manger tonight told detainees in MITA.#COVID19 pic.twitter.com/vtkKUUNeAe
— Farhad Bandesh Art (@FarhadBandesh) July 12, 2020
“Everyone is panicking, nobody could sleep last night. I could not get to sleep until 5am,” he said, in a statement supplied by the RAC.
“ABF said they could not guarantee that we wouldn’t get infected, when I asked.”
Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre People has claimed refugees are being “held in unventilated rooms with no PPE” where it is “physically impossible” to physically distance from each other.
“It’s the federal Government’s responsibility to keep people safe during this health crisis, including refugees in detention. People must be released for their health and safety,” said ASRC director of advocacy and campaigns, Jana Favero.
Amnesty International Australia refugee advisor, Dr Graham Thom, said it was “unconscionable” for the refugees to be kept “in a situation where their already fragile health is in more danger”.
Greens immigration spokesman Senator Nick McKim said the guard’s diagnosis was “an extremely concerning development” and raised fears that the virus could “spread like wildfire if it gets a foothold in immigration detention facilities”.
“The Mantra hotel is simply not suitable for safe detention as genuine social distancing is impossible with multiple men sleeping in the same small room,” Senator McKim said.
Refugees inside and supporters outside the hotel have carried out quiet protests in recent weeks against their detention, unfurling banners and sharing images on social media.
Protests at Mantra and MITA detention facilities this evening. What is the reason for their continuing detention? It’s a punitive decision from @PeterDutton_MP whose spite and vindictiveness knows no bounds. Each of these men have more integrity and compassion than #Dutton pic.twitter.com/PYHpHDDRE8
— RAC Victoria (@racvictoria) July 10, 2020
Mr Breen claimed the refugees were in a similar situation to the locked-down Melbourne public housing towers, which acting chief medical officer Paul Kelly has called “vertical cruise ships.”
“Refugees who have committed no crime and who have been detained for seven years are now having their lives threatened by being held unnecessarily in cruise-like detention conditions,” he said.
“This is beyond cruel. This is a form of torture.
“Despite multiple warnings, government authorities continue to put refugees at risk of COVID-19 infection.”
On Sunday, acting immigration minister Alan Tudge said refugees brought to Australia under medical evacuation legislation would have to return to Manus, Nauru, or their home country, unless they were accepted for resettlement in the US.
“We’ll keep them in the hotels in detention until they exercise one of those options. And that’s what we want them to do,” he told the ABC’s Insiders.
“We’ve always been very clear that people don’t get the right to come permanently into Australia … They’ve had their medical treatment and now it is, under the legislation, right for them to return home.”