A Covid outbreak among refugees and asylum seekers inside Melbourne’s Park Hotel has grown to as many as six, with growing concern lagging vaccination rates – and the forced confinement within hotels commandeered as detention centres – is exposing unvaccinated and vulnerable people to the virus.
At least 40 men held in the hotel are awaiting test results. Some said they had been told it could take two days for them to come through. Three positive cases have been confirmed, and up to another three are in isolation with symptoms.
Refugees and asylum seekers detained within the hotel held a protest Monday night chanting for “justice” and “freedom”.
Figures released by the government to the Senate on Monday show that vaccination rates among those held in immigration detention have been consistently less than half those of the general population.
On 6 September, the latest date for which figures were released, 52% of people in immigration detention had had at least one vaccination dose, and 17% were fully vaccinated, compared with 63.2% of eligible Australians with at least one dose in the wider population and 38.4% fully vaccinated.
In the government’s “alternative places of detention” (Apods) – typically hotels the government has commandeered and designated as detention centres, such as the Park – the number of fully vaccinated people was even lower, at 13%.
At the end of August, about 35% of people in detention centres had been partially vaccinated and 16% fully vaccinated, at a time when nearly 59% of eligible Australians had received a first dose and 35% were fully vaccinated.
This is despite the unavoidable confinement of detention – including shared sleeping, eating and limited recreation spaces – and the fact that many of those held in detention are medically vulnerable, having been evacuated from Nauru and Papua New Guinea because of acute healthcare needs.
Mustafa Salah, 23, currently held at the Park Hotel, said those held in the hotel were scared and frustrated at being placed at risk.
“We don’t know what to do,” said Salah, who has been held in Australia’s offshore and onshore immigration detention regimes for nearly eight years.
“We are always together … we sit together, eat together, we really don’t know what to do.”
Ian Rintoul, a spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, said the government had “failed to implement the most basic Covid protocols”.
He said the hotel was circulating air-conditioned air between the first floor – where isolated confirmed cases are held – and floors two and three, where other asylum seekers and refugees are held. The windows in the hotel cannot be opened: they were sealed shut after refugees were moved into the hotel in December.
“The Park hotel is a Covid incubator,” Rintoul said. “The government has created the conditions most likely to cause maximum infection among a very vulnerable group of people. More Covid cases in the Park hotel are inevitable.”
In a statement, the Australian Border Force said all detainees had been offered Covid-19 vaccinations.
“The rollout of the Covid-19 vaccination program to consenting detainees commenced in early August 2021 and has taken place at all immigration detention facilities across the immigration detention network.
“Standard departmental protocols are being followed in relation to a positive diagnosis including contact tracing, quarantining, testing and cleaning, in conjunction with the Victorian public health unit.
“The ABF and its service providers have implemented infection control measures and outbreak management plans at all immigration detention facilities.”
Senate questions on notice showed a massive contrast in the vaccination rates for refugees and asylum seekers held by Australia offshore.
On Nauru, which remains one of the few Covid-19 free countries on Earth, 88% of the 107 detainees held there had received a first dose by 6 September and 84% were fully vaccinated.
In PNG, the health system has been overrun by uncontrolled outbreaks, with hospitals overwhelmed and medicines running short. But the vaccination rate for the 121 men held in PNG by Australia was just 20% for first doses on that day: just 11% were fully vaccinated.
Labor’s Andrew Giles told the Guardian he had been concerned for more than a year about conditions in Apods and the possibility for widespread Covid transmission. He said he had raised concerns with the former home affairs minister, and was particularly concerned by persistently low rates of vaccination.
“People in immigration detention are in our care, and deserve to be treated as such – especially as many are in facilities here because of medical conditions, and have particular vulnerabilities and often trauma.
“They need to be protected from Covid,” Giles said. “Why hasn’t the Morrison government been listening to the warnings?”