“This poses dual risks of infected detainees infecting the airline crew or detainees being infected by the airline crew.
“Failure to take action to release people seeking asylum and refugees from detention will not only put them at greater risk of infection (and possibly death), it also risks placing a greater burden on wider Australian society and the health care system.”
More than 60 men are confined to a secure floor of the motel, which is off limits to other guests and staffed by armed guards. While Australian Border Force, which operates the motel’s secure wing, has cancelled all outside visits, guards come and go throughout the day.
Moz, an Iranian man with chronic asthma, said he spent 23 hours a day inside his room, terrified of the virus.
“It’s a really difficult situation, everyone is panicking,” he said. “I think I will die if I get this virus. I asked a nurse, ‘What would happen if I get it?’ And she didn’t say anything.”
The first group of men arrived at the Mantra on July 25, brought to Australia under medevac laws, which allowed sick asylum seekers and refugees to be transferred to Australia for treatment.
Those laws were repealed in December. The men remain in limbo.
Author Arnold Zable, who has visited the men and speaks with several of them regularly, said they were “terrified” of COVID-19.
“They’re in a very vulnerable and a very fragile situation. They were medevacced here and are supposedly getting treatment for various conditions … and they’re terrified of getting the coronavirus.”
Those fears have been heightened since a Brisbane guard working at a Kangaroo Flat motel turned makeshift detention centre tested positive for the virus last week, after coming into contact with medevac refugees.
An Australian Border Force spokesperson said no detainees across Australia’s immigration network had tested positive to COVID-19 and infection control plans were in place.
“Detainees displaying any COVID-19 symptoms may be quarantined and tested in line with advice from health officials and in accordance with the broader Commonwealth response.”
There was increased cleaning of communal areas, high-traffic areas and “common touch points”.
The UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment issued a memo to member states – including Australia – on March 25 urging immigration detainees be temporarily released to contain the threat of coronavirus spreading among vulnerable populations.
The UK has released hundreds of people from immigration detention in the past week, to lessen the risk of outbreaks.
Labor MP Peter Khalil said an organised release of detainees who have cleared security checks and have friends or family who could support them was “a reasonable approach”.
Mr Khalil said the men could be released into community detention: “These people are in administrative detention. They have committed no crime”.
“Currently they are being held in close confines so the government requirement of physical distancing to stop the spread of coronavirus is impossible,” he said.
“Releasing them will both protect the physical and mental health of these refugees and asylum seekers, and assist in the nationwide efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus.”
Bianca Hall is a senior reporter for The Age. She has previously worked in the Canberra bureau as immigration correspondent, Sunday political correspondent and deputy editor.