Legal challenge launched for refugee at high risk of coronavirus



Street art in Brisbane, Australia showing support for refugees and asylum seekers. Photo: Christy Gallois (CC0 1.0)

The Human Rights Law Centre has launched a legal challenge against the federal government on behalf of a chronically ill refugee held in immigration detention.

It’s calling for his immediate release into community accommodation.

The refugee’s severe underlying health issues and the cramped conditions he is being held in are thought to place him at particular risk of contracting COVID-19.

He was brought to Australia in 2019 from Manus Island for medical reasons and suffers from asthma, diabetes and a heart condition.

Depending on the outcome, the challenge (which was submitted to the High Court on the 22nd April) has the potential to be a catalyst for further cases.

According to Guardian Australia the refugee’s case is likely to be “first of many.“

The Centre’s Legal Director David Burke argues that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has a “duty of care” to their client, who should be released to allow him to practice social distancing.

Authorities are “likely to make a number of changes” to avoid the court case from proceeding, according to Katie Robertson who heads the Centre on Statelessness at the University of Melbourne’s School of Law.

She says this prediction’s based on her previous legal battles with the federal government.

Ms Robertson provides the example of a similar case brought before the British government in April, which was won by the British government but which has since seen the release of the majority of asylum seekers into community accomodation.

COVID-19 thrives in places where humans are in close contact and according to the Federal Department of Health’s own advice those in detention are “most at risk.”

Ms Robertson likens the conditions to “that of a cruise ship”.

With a lack of soap and hand sanitiser; shared bedrooms, bathrooms and meal areas; and a population who often suffer from pre-existing medical conditions, immigration detention centres are potential hotbeds of infections.

Ms Robertson says keeping asylum seekers in immigration detention not only puts their lives at risk but also endangers the lives of guards and the broader community.

guard at a hotel facility in Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point tested positive for COVID-19 in March, sparking initial calls from medical experts and human rights organisations for the federal government to take urgent action.

Governments in SpainBelgium and the UK have recently acted to remove asylum seekers from detention.

There are more than 1400 refugees and asylum seekers in immigration detention centres throughout Australia, according to estimates from human rights organisations.