Scared detainees in a Brisbane detention centre voiced their concerns about the coronavirus outbreak to immigration officers in a heated meeting on Thursday afternoon that left most of their questions unanswered, a video leaked to BuzzFeed News shows.
The meeting at the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation (BITA) centre was held following the news a Serco staffer who worked at a nearby detention centre had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. It was the second such meeting in two days.
The sick officer last worked a shift at the Kangaroo Point Central hotel, which is being used as a detention centre, on March 7. Men held in the hotel are frequently transported back and forth to BITA as it is the only place they can exercise, and people held in both centres are deeply worried about an outbreak of the virus.
At the meeting, held outside at BITA, an Australian Border Force (ABF) staffer told detainees that authorities had figured out the shifts worked by the staffer who tested positive. "So that process is very well underway at this stage," she said. Queensland health authorities would contact people who had "close contact" with that staff member, she said. The government was made aware of the diagnosis on Wednesday.
The government's "key focus" was on preventing the entry of COVID-19 into the detention network, she said to the men gathered outside. She reassured the men there were no confirmed cases of the disease in detention at this time.
"Detainees are required to maintain good personal hygiene, cough etiquette and social distancing, which none of you are doing at the moment, but that's OK, it's only for a short amount of time," she said.
"This particular case can deliver to someone else, and now it's like four people live in one room, and if it's like simply one got it, it's gonna be heaps," interrupted one man.
He pleaded with her to allocate only one or two detainees to each bedroom, or find alternative accommodation: "Please, if you can make the room single? Or at least like two?"
"We had lots of stress and for me personally I got panic attack last night. I can die," he told the officer. "It's like after eight years we gonna die by the Chinese coronavirus, like, you know, that's really unfair, please find a solution."
The ABF officer repeated throughout the short meeting that anyone with questions or concerns should put them in writing so the government and its service providers could respond properly. She undertook to respond to questions "when I get answers for you, either from us [in Brisbane] or from Canberra".
"It's quite a fluid situation, so that's why I ask you to put it in writing," she said. "It needs to be considered from a whole immigration detention environment, not just BITA, but everywhere, so I can't answer straight away."
"This coronavirus is not waiting for paperwork," one man said. "We really need serious real action."
"You need to tell me what your concerns are [in writing] so I can get you the answers and that's the end of the story," she replied.
An Iranian refugee detained at BITA told BuzzFeed News people in detention were worried. "We are all panicking in here, but we cannot do anything," he said.
"We want the people to be out of here and at least they can take care of themselves. In here we have zero right to access anything that will actually cover up or protect us from this sickness," the Iranian man said. He was concerned that guards and other staff members were not wearing gloves and masks.
He added that written requests and complaints usually took at least three days to get a response. "We don't have time to follow any request or write any requests," he said.
An officer for detention contractor Serco told the meeting that it was important detainees keep everything really clean. "We're learning new stuff every hour of every day," he said. "We are doing everything we can."
The ABF officer told the detainees medical contractor International Health & Medical Services had started "toolbox talks" this week to help inform the detention community about COVID-19 and allow them to ask questions.
She said that the ABF and its service providers were committed to ongoing communication and undertook to meet regularly with detainees to discuss the coronavirus outbreak.
Since March 11, detention centre staff have undergone "additional screening", noncontact visits have been implemented and high-traffic areas have had additional cleaning.