Detained refugees look to courts for Covid-19 protection

6:50 am on 30 April 2020

Refugees formerly detained on Manus Island and Nauru who are now detained in Australia will only be protected from Covid-19 by the government if the courts force it, a refugee says.

Farhad Rahmati

Farhad Rahmati Photo: Farhad Rahmati

The Human Rights Law Centre has filed a legal challenge in the High Court on behalf of another refugee.

It argues the government is breaching its duty of care by failing to provide conditions in immigration detention that allow him to protect himself from the coronavirus.

Like hundreds or refugees transferred from offshore to onshore detention for medical treatment, the claimant has a number of underlying health issues, including asthma and a heart condition, placing him at increased risk of death from Covid-19.

Australian doctors and medical experts have warned that crowded detention centres can spread Covid-19 like cruise ships and advised that detainees be released to protect themselves and the community.

The Law Centre said releases had been made in Great Britain, Belgium and Spain.

Its legal director David Burke said it was unclear why Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who contracted the coronavirus, was not following medical advice.

"We don't know why the minister hasn't followed the advice of medical experts like the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases who have called for him to urgently reduce the number of people in detention," Mr Burke said.

"What we want is for him to listen to that advice just like the government is asking the rest of us to do in our day to day lives at the moment."

Refugee Farhad Rahmati, one of about 120 men detained in a Brisbane hotel, said only the courts could make the government follow the advice.

Police move in on protesters outside the Brisbane Hotel, 24 April, 2020.

Police move in on protesters outside the Brisbane Hotel, 24 April, 2020. Photo: Refugee Action Collective Queensland

"In past seven years, the Liberal government showed that they have no intention to solve any matters towards offshore refugees unless they are forced," Mr Rahmati said.

"Australia is failing its obligation to refugees under international law. This is a crime against humanity. We have committed no crime and we are detained."

The legal challenge is expected to become a test case for all refugees detained onshore, however, Mr Burke said it was disappointing to have to resort to court action.

"No one should have to go to court just to get basic safety," he said.

"You shouldn't have to rely on lawyers to get medical treatment or to make sure that you are able to follow the public health guidelines that all the rest of us are trying to follow every day."

Australians are advised to social distance by at least 1.5 metres, which Mr Rahmati said could not be done be refugees in their crowded hotel.

"It's absolutely impossible to exercise social distancing here," he said.

"We are dealing with officers daily who have access outside. They come in two shifts and they might have the virus and they don't know it.

"The Minister of Home Affairs has the obligation and duty of care to protect us, my question to him is, why he is failing his duty?"

Refugees protest at their Brisbane hotel.

Refugees protest at their Brisbane hotel. Photo: Hakeem Kakar

RNZ Pacific asked the Department of Home Affairs if it was taking measures to protect those in immigration detention from the coronavirus but it did not respond.

Mr Rahmati said it should release refugees into the community.

"We all have supporters outside. Let us be with them… Let us be in a situation we could support and protect ourselves and others."

Refugee punished

A member of Australia's community willing to "house, feed, and clothe" detained refugees is the former Socceroo Craig Foster.

In the Guardian, Mr Foster revealed he had asked the government to release two refugees from a hotel in Melbourne into his care.

"I will fly Mostafa Azimitabar and Farhad Bandesh, two Kurds who've endured hell for seven years that we have turned into husks of people and who are my friends, to Sydney at my own expense.

Mostafa Azimitabar, Craig Foster and Farhad Bandesh.

Mostafa Azimitabar, Craig Foster and Farhad Bandesh. Photo: Craig Foster

"I'll pay a bond if necessary, and they'll live exactly as they should. As my brothers. Family members. As equals.

"And I call on the Australian government to release the 1,440 immigration detainees into the care of fellow Australians who feel the same way."

Mr Foster claimed there were 9900 members of "I Have a Room" in Australia who would accommodate those in immigration detention.

Mr Bandesh, an artist who has exhibited in Melbourne and remotely collaborated with Australian musicians, appeared on the ABC's Q&A programme last week to explain the refugees' coronavirus fears.

Two days later he was removed from the hotel and placed at Melbourne's MITA immigration detention centre.

His friend, the Australian musician David Bridie told the ABC Mr Bandesh was being punished for speaking out in the media and for using his art supplies to create protest placards.

Mr Bandesh has continued to protest at MITA.

Farhad Bandesh (right) protests in MITA.

Farhad Bandesh (right) protests in MITA. Photo: Farhad Bandesh